Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Editor's Viewpoint: Politicians need to unite over welfare

The most immediate conclusion to be drawn from the Assembly debate on the most swingeing welfare reforms in decades is that the our power-sharing administration is relatively powerless on the issue.

Sure, it can introduce changes to alleviate some of the hardship that will follow the introduction of the new measures, but where will the money come from? For all Sinn Fein's huffing and puffing, the party, as a major partner in the Executive, was not going to risk being pilloried for losing the province cash from London.

What essentially was happening at Stormont last night was a sham fight with the parties positioning themselves to fit in with the views of their constituencies but actually doing very little beyond expending a lot of hot air.

That is not to say that there are not tweaks to the reforms which the parties should try to get Westminster to introduce. Penalising tenants here for living in properties which are too big for them is patently unfair because the social housing mix does not fit the profile of those living in the properties.

Similarly, it is right to fight Northern Ireland's corner for those who are suffering physical or mental illnesses as a legacy of the Troubles. We won't get far with a general special status pleading, but these two issues do demand attention and fair implementation of any benefits system. It would be far better if our politicians were to go to Westminster with an united voice, highlighting what they see as deficiencies in the proposed new benefits system, rather than grandstanding at Stormont.

The rationale for the benefits shake-up is undeniable. The present system is too complex and too easily defrauded. Streamlining the system, and making work a more attractive option, are sound objectives. But the nagging doubt remains that saving money is the real purpose. Certainly that is how opponents will seek to categorise the reforms.

Everyone would like to see a system where those in genuine need get the benefits they deserve and the scroungers are put back to work. Will the reforms deliver that ideal? Only time will tell.

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