A fair benefits system is crucial
The statistics showing the level of benefits going into a significant number of homes in Northern Ireland are startling. Some 12,0000 households are in receipt of benefits in excess of the £23,000 cap proposed by the Prime Minister. That is the equivalent of a £29,300 pre-tax salary, well above the average wage for the province.
While local parties have agreed to implement welfare reform, it comes with the proviso that existing claimants should not be disadvantaged. In other words, the aim is that they should receive the existing levels of benefits.
This was the deal hammered out in the Stormont House Agreement that ended a long-running impasse due to Sinn Fein and SDLP opposition to welfare reform.
It is known that Northern Ireland has higher levels of benefits claims, particularly DLA. One reason put forward is greater morbidity due to a legacy of the Troubles. The state of the local economy means that there can be fewer employment opportunities than in some other regions of the UK.
Yet, as the parties discuss how the welfare reforms will be implemented, it is obvious that there must be a level of realism in those talks.
These are times of austerity and essential services such as healthcare and education are short of the funds ideally required. Many other sectors of life here, from policing to the arts, are facing severe cuts in funding and all of them can put forward deserving cases for more money.
No one, of course, suggests that those on benefits are not deserving cases, but questions must be asked if there are other ways of addressing their needs apart from guaranteeing their income, a state of affairs that does not apply to those who are actually in employment.
The Prime Minister suggests that the money used in reducing the cap on benefits should be used to create more apprenticeships, a well recognised route into gainful employment. In the long-term that would produce more revenue for government and enable those who cannot work to obtain the benefits they require.
A day after local politicians were warned that they must make hard decisions if they want a really world class health service here, these latest statistics again query the wisdom of making populist promises which could have adverse consequences for other areas of life here. A fair benefits system should not discourage people from seeking employment.