Benefit cuts 'return to Thatcher'
Slashing benefits in Northern Ireland risks returning to the failed policies of Margaret Thatcher, the social development minister has said.
Coalition reforms would leave those most in need of welfare out in the cold, Alex Attwood added.
Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith insisted nobody would suffer reduced benefits because of the introduction of a universal credit replacing several payments including Job Seekers' Allowance. But Mr Attwood disagreed, saying: "They have been slashing benefits and that has been presented as reform. That is not reform, that is going back to the failed politics of the past and the policies of Thatcher."
Tough new welfare rules will strip unemployed claimants of their benefits for up to three years if they refuse the opportunity to work.
Unemployed people who turn down offers of work, refuse to apply for appropriate jobs or fail to turn up for mandatory community work will lose their £65-a-week Job Seekers' Allowance (JSA), said Prime Minister David Cameron.
The measure, included in the Welfare Reform White Paper being published today by the Work and Pensions Secretary, is intended to be in place before 2013 in an effort to cut the bill for JSA, which is claimed by 1.5 million people.
The allowance will be removed for three months on a first offence, six months the second time and three years on the third breach of the new rules. JobCentre advisers are expected to have the power to strip errant jobseekers of JSA and there will be no right of appeal, officials said. Mr Cameron said the changes would create "clear responsibilities and clear incentives for those on benefit to take steps towards getting back to work wherever it's feasible for them to do so".
Job advisers already have the power to remove JSA for up to 26 weeks from people who fail to take up offers of employment, but the sanction is very rarely applied. Government sources said it would be the presumption that the benefit would be forfeited in cases of breach in all but exceptional cases, where compelling reasons were provided for failing to take up work.
Those losing income from JSA will be able to apply for a hardship allowance, worth 60% to 70% of the benefit (around £39 to £44 a week), but this is not expected to be available in many cases. The universal credit also aims to increase the amount of earnings people can have without losing benefits and create an incentive for people to start working again.
Mr Attwood said he wanted to protect the principle of parity whereby benefits were paid directly from Great Britain, which meant he would be under pressure to introduce identical reforms, but the SDLP MLA argued Northern Ireland's shortage of jobs and emergence from conflict meant it should be treated as a special case. Last year, £4.2 billion was claimed in benefit from Westminster.