Belfast Telegraph

Contradictory advice of civil servants has ministers at odds on welfare cash

By Michael McHugh

The two ministers at the centre of the row over a 'bedroom tax' relief scheme have published conflicting advice from their most senior civil servants.

But an end to the row may be in sight after a DUP minister said he would press ahead with the payments by bypassing the Executive and bringing legislation directly before the Assembly - potentially on the same day the election is called.

Last night Communities Minister Paul Givan said: "I'm asking the Speaker to reconvene the business committee, so that, urgently, this can be brought before the Assembly on Monday.

"I'll be appealing to MLAs to vote for these regulations in order to protect individuals, because they should not pay the price for what has been happening here in this Executive, with Sinn Fein's tactics."

Extra money 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.

Stormont ministers have been at loggerheads over whether cash to support those losing out under the Government's bedroom tax can still be distributed amid the devolution crisis.

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

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

Yesterday, the Department for Communities released a copy of advice from its permanent secretary Leo O'Reilly to Mr Givan.

It stated that an earlier suggestion by Mr O Muilleoir that existing legislation could be used for bedroom tax relief payments provides "no legal basis for the kind of scheme that is contained in the present draft Regulations".

"It would be unprecedented to introduce a new welfare scheme estimated to cost around £25m per year solely on the basis of administrative action," the letter states. "In light of the above, our legal advice therefore confirms that the only way for you and the Department to introduce a statutory 'bedroom tax' mitigation scheme is through the present draft regulation and that the laying of these regulations is the safest legal route in the present circumstances."

Earlier, the Sinn Fein minister had published very different advice from his senior civil servant, David Sterling.

He 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.

"This will cover any expenditure up until the end of March 2017."

After that, separate pre-existing legislation will be sufficient to ensure payments continue, Mr Sterling added.

The Budget Act does not provide for the terms and conditions of any scheme, including who can be paid mitigation payments and how much they may be paid.

Mr Sterling said: "However, there is no legal reason why these matters cannot be determined administratively."

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