Belfast Telegraph

Agreement on welfare reform 'nears'

The outline of a deal on welfare reform in Northern Ireland is on the horizon, a law expert said.

A spare room tax will only be introduced for new benefit claimants while Northern Ireland's Executive is likely to follow the example of its Scottish counterpart on other measures; putting more money into a discretionary support fund to help those struggling and addressing issues which will not cost a lot to deal with, the director of the Law Centre Les Allamby said.

Tens of millions of pounds may need to be found from elsewhere in the budget if the block grant from London which runs public services is cut to compensate for a failure to deliver benefits savings, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has warned.

Mr Allamby said: "The outline of a deal is on the horizon."

Westminster reforms include a new universal credit payment to replace child tax credit and housing benefit. But the legislation is still going through the Assembly at Stormont amid concerns that low-paid and unemployed people could lose out.

Delays to welfare reform could cost the Stormont Executive £200 million a year in penalties by 2017, finance minister Simon Hamilton has said.

Mr Allamby added: "With no desire to lose significant sums from public expenditure, there is likely to be some movement from Sinn Fein and the DUP.

"Whatever happens, and it will almost certainly fall short of passing the Bill by January, it remains to be seen whether any movement will be enough to avoid the financial penalty."

The financial impact of the welfare cuts is greater in Northern Ireland than other parts of the UK because of the large number of people who claim incapacity benefit and disability living allowance, opponents have claimed.

Planned changes include sanctions for those turning down jobs and a cap on benefits paid to a single family.

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey has said reduced housing benefit could mean some people being forced to leave houses they had spent most of their lives in amid a shortage of smaller properties.

The coalition Government at Westminster has argued that the changes will "make work pay" and insisted the reforms will ensure those in work are better off than the unemployed.

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