Belfast Telegraph

Friday 26 December 2014

Handle with care: this is too important to rush

The Welfare Reform Bill will reshape the benefits system for a generation. That's why line-by-line scrutiny is so vital, says Alex Maskey

The marathon debate earlier this month on the Welfare Reform Bill, and its introduction locally, demonstrated how seriously all the parties take this legislation.

The robust debate highlighted more than anything the concerns that almost all members of the Assembly have about this Bill, which mirrors the Westminster Tory-led coalition Bill.

The Bill has now passed its second stage and it is the job of the social development committee, which I chair, to scrutinise it.

There are seven parts to the Bill, a key element of which is universal credit, which will replace the individually paid benefits of income-based jobseeker's allowance, income-related employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credits, working tax credits and housing benefit.

I would point out that members have already raised issues with the department and minister in respect of restrictions on entitlement, how awards are calculated, a range of issues associated with housing costs, impact on people with disabilities, work-related requirements, the claimant commitment and the new sanctions regime. All members of the committee recognise that we are dealing with legislation that will completely change and reshape the benefits system for a generation.

As the Bill stands, the impact will be very real for local people and families. It is for that reason that the committee will examine every possible practical option to amend the Bill and to ensure it addresses the specific circumstances we face.

In the coming weeks, the committee will intensively, robustly and methodically scrutinise the Bill. Our initial deliberations with the department will, of course, be supplemented by evidence from our stakeholders, focussing on where practical changes can and should be made to mitigate the worst effects of the Bill.

However, in addressing these concerns, members will also grapple with the issue of parity with Westminster legislation.

The Government has already made it very clear that any extra costs which come from deviating from the Westminster Bill will be taken from the Executive's Budget, thereby reducing the monies available for other local expenditure. We are currently discussing these implications with the department as part of our examination of the Bill.

The importance of this Bill is reflected in the committee's decision to clear its work programme of all but essential issues and dedicate three days per week until November 27 in order to fulfil its scrutiny role.

The committee believes this is an appropriate and necessary approach which delivers on its statutory scrutiny role, while engaging extensively with a wide range of stakeholders.

The committee, however, is not starting from scratch and every stakeholder is fully aware of the time it has already spent on this issue over the past year. Over this period, the committee has received a number of pre-legislative briefings from the department and we have also heard from key stakeholders, so we know the fears that people have about this Bill.

Indeed, as public representatives, all members are acutely aware of these concerns from within their own constituencies. But in order to address these fears in a practical way, we will focus on and be specific about what changes need to be made to the Bill in order to address our specific local circumstances.

As chairperson of the committee, I recognise that members and parties may adopt various positions on the Welfare Reform Bill, but all members of the committee have also expressed wide-ranging concerns with various provisions of the Bill.

We are, therefore, determined to thoroughly scrutinise the Bill, to effect change where possible and to safeguard the needs of all our people - especially the most vulnerable.

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