Belfast Telegraph

Changing Northern Ireland's welfare system a divisive struggle

By Adrian Rutherford

Reform of Northern Ireland's welfare system is at the heart of the current impasse at Stormont.

Although welfare is a devolved matter, a "parity principle" applies. Our benefits have always mirrored those in the rest of the UK. Any changes in Westminster have been rubber-stamped here.

However, the disagreement centres on the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, which Sinn Fein and the SDLP opposed.

It meant changes to the welfare system, introduced in the rest of the UK, were not implemented in Northern Ireland. That has come at a cost, with £114m being withheld from the block grant by the Treasury as a "fine".

Agreement on welfare reform was finally reached at the end of 2014. Implementing the Government's changes to the benefits system formed a key plank of the Stormont House Agreement.

But the already long-delayed reforms hit a fresh stumbling block this month after Sinn Fein pulled its support for legislation hours before a final Assembly debate.

The wrangle centres on whether Stormont-funded schemes to support those in Northern Ireland who would lose out under the reformed UK welfare system will cover future claimants, not just existing ones.

Sinn Fein withdrew support after alleging the DUP had acted in bad faith by proposing to limit the schemes to current claimants.

The DUP insisted there had never been an agreement to support future claimants and said such a system would require another £286m. If agreement on welfare isn't secured, the Stormont House deal is likely to implode.

The crisis appeared to have eased somewhat last Friday, when both Sinn Fein and the DUP said progress had been made.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph