Belfast Telegraph

Parties are playing a silly game

By Steven Agnew

"The Tories are coming! The Tories are coming!"

That, for some, is as scary as it gets - me included. And it has been the cry which is intended to drive the discussions on welfare at the recently convened Stormont House II talks.

The announcement from the Secretary of State that, if necessary, the Conservative Government will legislate for welfare cuts in Northern Ireland has been described by Arlene Foster as a "game-changer". Others may see it as more as "game over".

In reality, it changes nothing. The Welfare Reform Bill, which was proposed - and defeated - in the Assembly, simply replicated the legislation that applied in Great Britain - the difference being that the Stormont House Agreement included a top-up fund of £565m to mitigate against the worst impact of welfare cuts in the first six years.

The top-up scheme was agreed along with other measures, such as the civil service redundancy scheme, which required the agreement of the UK Government.

However, the top-up fund itself was coming out of Northern Ireland's block grant and required only the agreement of the Executive parties to implement it.

The fact that the UK Government was party to the overall agreement was circumstantial and not essential to the proposal.

If the legislation, instead, goes through Westminster and is "imposed" on Northern Ireland, there is nothing that stops us introducing a top-up system through the Assembly.

Welfare was not devolved to Scotland, so the same legislation applies there as in England and Wales. However, the Scottish government was able negate the effects of the "bedroom tax" by making a payment of equivalent value to anyone hit by the tax. The scheme agreed at Stormont House would have applied in a similar way.

If welfare powers are taken back by the UK Government, any cuts can still be ameliorated if agreement can be reached between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

They're still playing the same game. Meanwhile, some of the poorest people in our society are awaiting the final move, expecting that, at the end, it will be they who lose.

  • Steven Agnew MLA is leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland

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