Belfast Telegraph

We have a moral duty to fight for our social security

Those in need must not carry the burden of public spending cuts, says Alex Attwood

I am meeting the Welfare Reform Minister, Lord Freud, in London today for the second time in recent weeks to reinforce the case I am making on behalf of Northern Ireland's social security recipients.

Northern Ireland is more dependent on social security payments than other regions, so any changes to eligibility or payment rates has a much bigger impact here.

No one is under any illusions that some tough times lie ahead and that the Westminster government is determined to push ahead with its programme of cuts.

But steps to close budget deficits nearly always hit the poor hardest.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies, in its evaluation of the cuts already announced, is clear that they disproportionately impact on the less well-off.

It cannot be right that the most vulnerable in society are to carry the burden for a financial crisis which was not of their making.

We already have some idea of the changes which the Westminster Government wish to make to the benefits system - the proposed reform of Housing Benefit in effect cutting the amount of Housing Benefit payable, increasing state pension age, longer-term reform of DLA etc. And that is only the beginning. Iain Duncan Smith has made no secret of his ambitions for a complete overhaul of the benefits system.

I believe in reform. Reform of housing, policing and politics has been essential. But I have serious concerns about many of London's welfare reform proposals.

Crucially, the Treasury is much more about cutting welfare than changing welfare. In addition, the Northern Ireland economy is still fragile.

We will not emerge from recession before late 2012 at the earliest. Unemployment here is still rising; therefore any cuts to the public sector will inevitably have a big impact on the local economy. That is why I have not been content to stand by waiting for adverse decisions from Westminster.

I have been making the case that we do not implement some of these changes, because of the particular problems which we in the North face.

Many areas here continue to suffer from the legacy of the Troubles with high levels of deprivation and joblessness contributing to higher levels of ill-health.

I have had several meetings with ministers, including Iain Duncan Smith and Lord Freud.

I have challenged them on a number of issues, including putting some of their proposals on hold.

I am determined to see if we can do things better here. I am working with key stakeholders, including the voluntary sector, to draw on their expertise to see how things can be done better. I have also asked my officials to consider piloting some possible solutions to see if we here can lead the way.

I am encouraged by the support I have received across the political spectrum for my proactive approach to the issue of welfare reform.

For me, some things are non-negotiable. Whatever about the top-line budget outcome, Northern Ireland ministers will decide that the bottom line is to protect those in need and in stress.

If this value is not at the heart of our budget, it will not be much of a budget and we will not have much of a Government.

Moreover, we must deepen politics and community stability, give no cause for alienation no opportunity for those anti-democratic group to exploit people.

I will negotiate hard with London around their welfare proposals, but I will also argue long with fellow ministers that those in need and disadvantage carry none of the burden of whatever the Budget of October 20 brings.

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