Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 23 October 2014

Mike Penning's message was blunt ... the meter is now running

"I am more working class than you. I don't drive around in a bloody great Audi."

Those were the tough words of Mike Penning to radio presenter Stephen Nolan yesterday morning as he arrived in Belfast to deliver a strong message on London's frustration with the pace of welfare reform here.

Privately the two men get on well, but the straight-talking ex-fireman was in no mood to be diverted from his main message that further delays in introducing welfare reform would lumber Northern Ireland plc with a hefty bill. Local parties have agonised over the issues for months and Mr Penning's mission from the Treasury was to make it clear that the meter is now running.

Our block grant from London is linked to public spending in England and from January it will be reduced because of benefit reforms and cuts in Britain. If we don't mirror the British benefit changes then we have to make up the shortfall ourselves, which will start at £5m a month next January and go on rising.

"How long you pay this depends on the devolved administration," Mr Penning told the Belfast Telegraph.

"What they can't expect to do is to call my bluff, and I think that is what they are attempting to do.

"I think it is one particular party that is attempting to do that, and that is Sinn Fein," he said.

Mr Penning, who first visited Northern Ireland on a tour of duty with the Grenadier Guards, pointed the finger of blame for the delay squarely at Sinn Fein.

"They will have to decide what they want to do. If you are running the show you have to make easy decisions and you have to make tough decisions, and this decision is now in their court.

"I am trying to get some momentum on it and to encourage the politicians here to get on with their discussions they are having internally," he told the Belfast Telegraph.

"The simple situation is that the rest of the UK is moving ahead with welfare reform, but it is not taking place here so we have to address that, and if politically they have not made a decision then that is entirely up to them, but there is a cost. They are elected to and they run a devolved administration, but what I can't do, along with the Treasury, is allow the financial situation to just drift. That can't happen."

He insisted: "There is nothing new in what I have said today, Nelson (McCausland, the Stormont Social Development Minister) has been repeating this, but frankly some people are not listening.

"What the Treasury and the powers that be decided was that we had to come to Northern Ireland and tell them exactly what the situation was."

He hopes his blunt words will deliver a sharp shock to the political system, but he had a number of other missions here.

After his robust exchange on the airwaves, Mr Penning left the Nolan Show at 10am.

"I'm off," he said, when he was told that Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey had joined the guests. Realising how that might sound, he paused to explain that it was simply because he had to get up to the DSD offices for his prearranged meeting with Mr McCausland, and was not a reaction to Mr Maskey's arrival.

It didn't mollify the Sinn Fein man. He later said: "We're being threatened, basically, by the British Government to penalise us further for trying to make sure that we represent the interests of the people here that we represent, that no Tory represents."

Later Mr Penning visited his former civil servants in the NIO.

At the Benefits Centre in Belfast he talked to staff who are already administering a new benefits cap for other areas of the UK.

Next port of call was Sandy Row community centre "to keep a promise I made when I was here as a junior minister".

Today he is carrying out a private engagement with local Army cadets for whom he acts as honorary colonel.

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