Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

London Notebook: MPs take Tories to task over our welfare shortfall

Theresa Villiers MP
Theresa Villiers MP

Benefits Street, the new Channel 4 series that focuses on a Birmingham street where nearly all the residents are living off state handouts, has focused MPs minds once again on welfare.

The Prime Minister was asked his view about the programme in the Commons last week. David Cameron said it just showed how the Government's policy, namely "a welfare system that is tailored to ensure that work always pays", was the correct one.

At Northern Ireland Questions, local MPs raised concerns about a further £12bn in cuts to the welfare budget being proposed by the Chancellor.

Ian Paisley Jr said one in four people in Ulster "earns and lives on a salary that falls below the basic standard of living". He asked for assurances that further cuts "will not force more people into poverty in Northern Ireland".

NIO minister Andrew Robathan reminded MPs that "Northern Ireland receives more than a quarter more in Government spending per head in comparison with constituencies such as mine in England and, indeed, all English constituencies". He added: "Work, not welfare, will bring prosperity to Northern Ireland."

This did not deter Mark Durkan from asking for special treatment. His Foyle constituency has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the UK.

"The Chancellor has indicated he is considering a new regime for annually managed expenditure, with an overall cap on welfare spending," he said. "Does the minister believe that that will entail a cap within a cap for Northern Ireland's welfare spending?"

Robathan replied: "Northern Ireland cannot be exempt from that which is affecting the rest of the United Kingdom."

Labour MPs used Northern Ireland questions to raise their favourite topic, the 'cost of living crisis'. Glasgow MP Ann McKechin said: "Belfast, with an expected loss of £840 per adult of working age, will be hit harder than any other major city in Britain."

Another Glasgow MP, John Robertson, said at least 11 food banks have opened in the province since 2012. Secretary of State Theresa Villiers (below) said she was expecting this line of questioning, which has nothing to do with Northern Ireland and everything to do with Labour tactics.

"The actions the Government are taking to help with the cost of living include freezing fuel duty, cutting income tax bills, delivering the biggest ever single cash increase in the state pension and helping to keep interest rates low by dealing with the deficit," she replied.

Tory MPs then retaliated with "will she agree with me" questions. Villiers did, indeed, agree with her honourable friends that the Chancellor's "long-term strategy to rebalance the economy" is the right way forward.

"That is the way we can keep interest rates low and deal with inflation and that is the way we can make this country a wealthier place," she told the Commons.

Jim Shannon reminded her that while future prosperity is something all MPs aspire to, many people are suffering now.

He quoted the sobering statistic that one in three people in Northern Ireland think they will struggle to pay their rent, or mortgage, this year.

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