Belfast Telegraph

Bill to make light work of improving benefits system

Northern Ireland's 'dependency culture' must be tackled before it does even more damage, says Steve McIlwrath

In 2008, the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) replaced incapacity benefit and income support for new claimants. Last week, the Belfast Telegraph reported that only one in every 25 of those who have applied for ESA in Northern Ireland has proved genuinely unable to work.

It's a fairly depressing statistic and one which highlights a benefits culture that is damaging our society, draining our tax money and holding our economy back.

Welfare dependency is a scourge and there is a host of reasons why we need to tackle it.

Firstly, it isn't fair on the hard-working, conscientious people who foot the bill through their taxes. Secondly, when a section of the prospective working population rules itself out of the employment market it hampers Northern Ireland's productivity.

Thirdly, it traps people in an unrewarding, irresponsible, low-income lifestyle and makes it desperately difficult for them to escape.

Most of all it has a harmful effect on our society as a whole, eroding the work ethic, causing resentment and contributing to increased levels of crime, addiction and vandalism.

Dependency has laid waste to some of our communities already and it needs to be tackled and reversed before it can do even more damage.

Unfortunately, there are politicians from all the current parties at Stormont who would cheerfully let that happen. They argue that we should not have welfare reform in Northern Ireland, because so many people are claimants.

Of course, the logic of their argument is completely the wrong way around. We need change urgently, precisely because the take-up of benefits here is so high.

That's a major reason why the Conservative Minister for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, introduced the Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament.

The legislation will introduce a universal credit, which radically simplifies the welfare system. It will also ensure that no one who chooses to work will be worse off than they would be if they stayed on benefits.

For far too long, many of those who wanted to return to work felt they couldn't do so, because their payments would be suddenly stopped. It meant that they were often better off turning down employment and remaining dependent. The new legislation will put an end to that anomaly.

This government wants to incentivise people to work where they can and it wants to make sure that, where people are responsible and industrious, they reap the rewards.

It's not about punishing existing claimants. No one who is genuinely entitled to benefits will be any worse off.

Indeed, because the process will be simpler, welfare take-up should be higher where the assistance is needed most. It certainly is about encouraging potential workers to do the right thing; for society at large, but also for themselves.

The Welfare Reform Bill will be good for people who are already working; it will drive down the overall cost of benefits to the taxpayer, weeding out those who shouldn't be getting payments at all and making sure they're targeted at those who need them.

It will also be good for claimants; many will be encouraged to get back into work, without fear of losing money and those who can't work, or who simply can't find a job, won't be any worse off.

That's really what we Conservatives are about: looking out for the interests of people who are doing their best and making sure everyone has the opportunities to make the biggest contribution to society that they can.

These are values which can help tackle our welfare dependency problem in Northern Ireland, to the advantage of everyone here. The statistics in last week's Belfast Telegraph provide more proof that a change is necessary.

The alternative is to do nothing and, if it were left to the parties at Stormont, that is almost certainly what would happen.

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