Belfast Telegraph

Debate on welfare is of no benefit without statistics

By Tom Moseley

The ping-ponging Welfare Reform Bill returns to the House of Commons this week after its latest bruising trip to the Lords. As far as Northern Ireland is concerned, however, the battle has moved on.

In the coming weeks, we will see interventions by Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson, who believes passionately in the reforms, and a major debate hosted by the leaders of Northern Ireland's main churches, who remain concerned about them.

Given that the Bill will end up as law from Westminster, the question now turns to what Stormont can do to limit its effects.

It's understood that some 'wriggle-room' is available and talks are underway between the coalition Government and Assembly ministers on specific areas of concern.

But all sides know there is no prospect of Northern Ireland going it alone and setting up its own welfare system, so the essence of the Government's reforms will apply in Ulster in the same way.

Yet we're still not clear on the impact. Northern Ireland was excluded from studies of the impact of the flagship measure, the £26,000 cap on benefits.

Recent weeks have seen claims of a single person, and around 3,000 households, being affected.

The Department for Social Development is still trying to ascertain accurate numbers, but it would be helpful to know by now.

Thanks to a written answer this week, we now know how many households would be affected everywhere in Britain from Aberdeen (100) to York (none). But no word on Northern Ireland. That cannot be right.

As the small print of the Bill is argued out, the propaganda battle over the reforms will hot up.

Owen Paterson is expected to make a major speech next week, setting out the case for reform.

When opponents say Ulster is a special case, pointing to high levels of deprivation and a lack of available jobs, Paterson agrees. For him, however, this means Northern Ireland needs reform more urgently than anywhere else does, to end benefit dependency.

The church leaders, who visited Westminster in December to lobby ministers, have not been pacified by the concessions and are turning their campaign to local politicians in an attempt to secure specific measures relating to Northern Ireland's high child-poverty levels.

The centrepiece of their campaign will be a debate the four men will host at the Presbyterian Assembly Buildings later this month at which a 'senior coalition government member' has been promised.

The debate might be shifting from Westminster to Stormont, but it's showing no signs of slowing down.

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