Belfast Telegraph

Bedroom tax: Paul Givan and Mairtin O Muilleoir at loggerheads over £24m benefit payouts in Northern Ireland

Stormont ministers are at odds over whether payments to support those losing out under the Government's 'bedroom tax' can be distributed amid the devolution crisis.

The DUP Communities Minister Paul Givan has insisted the approval of the now-paralysed Executive is required to authorise £24m in payouts this year to around 34,000 social housing residents.

They are set to lose out due to the policy of reducing benefits to those deemed to have spare rooms.

Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir countered those claims by insisting the 2016 Budget Act enables the release of the payments.

Then Mr Givan later rejected Mr O Muilleoir's claim.

He tweeted: "Engaged with my officials on DoF Ministers letter re bedroom tax. Regrettably not a way forward. I continue to explore emergency options."

Amid uncertainty around the mitigation measures, earlier the minister's Sinn Fein colleague Conor Murphy had urged the UK Government not to roll out the spare room subsidy in Northern Ireland.

Otherwise known as the social sector size criteria, the Government welfare reform on housing benefit will be introduced in Northern Ireland next month.

Extra money of up to £91m provided by Stormont to make up for cuts to the overall welfare budget at Westminster was a key plank in an earlier agreement to save power-sharing. It had been a central Sinn Fein demand.

But the looming implosion of the institutions following Martin McGuinness's resignation as Deputy First Minister means the Executive is currently unable to meet to sign off the payments.

While Mr Givan's department stated that Executive approval is required, Mr O Muilleoir insisted otherwise.

A Department of Finance spokesman said: "The Finance Minister has written to the Communities Minister to confirm that sufficient legislative authority is already in place to allow bedroom tax mitigation payments.

"The 2016 Budget Act, which was approved by the Assembly, provides legislative authority to make bedroom tax mitigation payments. This will cover any expenditure up until March 2017.

"After that date, Section 59 of the 1998 NI Act can be used to ensure payments continue."

Earlier, Mr Murphy had said: "All of the parties in these institutions are opposed to the bedroom tax.

"It is the British Government who are legislating for bedroom tax and we told them specifically today that they have no need to legislate for bedroom tax for the north."

On Thursday David Sterling, from the Department of Finance, wrote: "I am content, having taken legal advice, that from a legal perspective the 2016 Budget Act provides sufficient legislative authority to make bedroom tax mitigation payments.

Mr Sterling cautioned that the Budget Act does not provide for the terms and conditions of any mitigation scheme.

However, he added that "there is no legal reason why these matters cannot be determined administratively".

Sinn Fein Foyle MLA Raymond McCartney said: "I hope that those politicians who for purely political point scoring reasons indulged in scaremongering, creating unnecessary concern for citizens will now do the honourable thing and retract their assertions as publicly as they made them.

"The Permanent Secretary at the Department, David Sterling has today confirmed that after taking legal advice the position given by Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muelloir was the correct interpretation of the legislation and that Bedroom Tax mitigations can go forward and that after March the 1998 Act will be sufficient to ensure that payments can continue."

Steps to protect Northern Ireland benefit recipients from London-driven welfare reforms were championed by Sinn Fein and negotiated as part of the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire rejected the suggestion that the Government would adjust its UK-wide welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.

"It is a UK-wide position on the spare room subsidy," he said.

"Clearly it is for the devolved administration here to determine if they wish to make a change from UK-wide policy."

Mr Givan had said earlier that he could not release the £24m pledged to help claimants this year because legally he needed the agreement of the Executive. He had said: "Legally, the mitigation measures have to go to the Executive, then the relevant committee, and finally the Assembly for a debate and vote.

"That would have been done over the next four weeks and measures put in place before the bedroom tax was introduced on February 20.

"Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein wanted the bedroom tax but, by Sinn Fein's actions, it's now on the cards."

His department later confirmed that Assembly approval is required to give the department the necessary powers to make the payments.

"Without Executive and Assembly approval the Department does not have the legal basis to introduce the mitigation payments as planned," it said.

"The minister has tasked officials to look at what emergency procedures may be available."

Belfast Telegraph


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