Belfast Telegraph

Government slammed over Northern Ireland benefits changes 'fast-track'

The Government has been accused of adopting a "kangaroo parliamentary procedure" to stifle debate and "fast track" changes to Northern Ireland's benefits system through Parliament.

The Stormont Assembly voted to allow the Government to finally roll out its welfare reforms in Northern Ireland as part of the recently agreed 'Fresh Start' political deal between the DUP, Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments.

The agreement resolves the wrangle over the Assembly's non-implementation of the Government's welfare reforms and a number of other disputes that had pushed Northern Ireland's coalition Executive to the verge of collapse.

As a result, MPs were today asked to expedite the passage of the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill through Parliament in just one day using emergency legislative procedures.

But Mark Durkan, Social Democratic and Labour Party MP for Foyle, attacked the Government for the apparent lack of time and scrutiny being allocated to the Bill.

"We would have liked to have more time just as our colleagues in the Assembly when the debate arose there last week wanted to take more time - not just members of the SDLP, but members of other parties," he said.

Mr Durkan criticised the way forward which meant opposition amendments could not be voted on, labelling it a "kangaroo parliamentary procedure".

"Members of this House should not be under the illusion that they have to adopt a procedure with a timetable motion in relation to this Bill that they wouldn't adopt for anybody else but that it is safe and okay to do so because it is in the name of taking forward the peace process or the Fresh Start agreement," he said.

He added: "It is wrong that we are circumscribed on time. It is wrong that we are being muzzled."

Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers admitted asking MPs to take all stages of a Bill through the House in a single day is "exceptional" and "not ideal".

"The Government is only embarking on this procedure because we view it to be absolutely necessary in this specific case," she said.

Ms Villiers said it is necessary to "fast track" the legislation so that "welfare reform is no longer an issue which is undermining the political process in Northern Ireland as it has done over the last four years".

She also stressed the need for welfare reform in Northern Ireland.

She told the House: "The difference between the level of benefits in Great Britain and the level of benefits currently being paid out in Northern Ireland amounts to some £2 million a week.

"That is a drain on the resources of the Executive which it can ill afford at this difficult time for the public finances."

She said the current system in Northern Ireland is "simply unaffordable".

"The Northern Ireland Executive estimates that the cost to its budget next year will rise to over £200 million and by the end of this Parliament to over half a billion pounds a year in terms of the difference between parity and the old system," she said.

Northern Ireland's Executive has agreed to spend £585 million, over the next four years, to provide top-up payments to those losing out under changes to the benefits and tax credit systems.

Northern Ireland minister Ben Wallace said the Bill is the only realistic prospect of ending the impasse over welfare reform at Stormont, which is required for last week's political deal to be implemented.

Mr Wallace said it would leave welfare as a devolved matted but also temporarily give the UK Government powers over it until the end of next year.

But he stressed that ministers in Westminster have "no intention or desire" to reform welfare in Northern Ireland beyond the current requirements to sustain last week's deal to save the power-sharing agreement.

As the Bill moved to second reading, Mr Wallace said: "This is a good Bill for Northern Ireland, a Bill which will help resolve the long-running, politically divisive stalemate over welfare reform.

"The Bill is a crucial element to establishing and building upon the fresh start announced last week.

"The Bill and the subsequent order in council does not guarantee political stability in Northern Ireland, but without it political stability and progress is frankly impossible.

"Our approach may appear unusual or unconventional but it does have the cross-community support of a vast number of Northern Ireland elected representatives.

"This Bill offers the only realistic prospect of Northern Ireland's welfare reform impasse (ending)."

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker said Labour would support the Bill despite being opposed to much of the Government's welfare reform.

The Labour frontbencher highlighted the exemptions in the Bill to ease the impact of some of the reforms.

Mr Coaker said: "We will not oppose this legislation but let us be clear. We have over recent years opposed much of the Tory Government's welfare reform agenda and we will continue to do so.

"We accept however that the agreement does allow Northern Ireland certain welcome exemptions and the ability to mitigate the impact of these cuts, for example the exemption from the bedroom tax and the £585 million to be made available over four years from the block grant to help."

The SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell said his party had tabled amendments to the Bill which would limit the UK Government's power on implementing the benefit cap and on sanctions, as it was worried about the effects those policies have had elsewhere in the union.

The Belfast South MP said: "These amendments are a reflection of and are very compatible with some of the amendments which we made during the consideration stage of the Welfare Reform Bill of Stormont, which was voted down by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

"These flexibilities would limit the Secretary of State's power and influence to make a benefit cap in Northern Ireland and would in turn reduce the minimum period of sanction time from 18 months to six months.

"We're deeply concerned when we see the outcome of the sanctions in Britain which we believe has treated claimants extremely unfairly."

Democratic Unionist Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) said the flexibility given to the Northern Ireland Assembly as part of the agreement ensured it is a "good deal", adding he will be pleased to support the Bill.

Danny Kinahan, Ulster Unionist Party MP for South Antrim, said the legislation was "most extraordinary", adding: "It's so sad that it's become necessary, not because of what it does - although we welcome much of what is in it and the fact that it can now happen, and it moves us out of the quagmire of inactivity...

"But we've got it because our legislators in Northern Ireland are unable to do it themselves and are happy to pass the buck to Westminster.

"Also, because it's actually a worse deal than what was on offer in the original Stormont House discussions."

He also said it shows the UK Government is happy to listen to just the two main parties in Northern Ireland, a claim denied by Ms Villiers.

Democratic Unionist Ian Paisley (North Antrim) later praised "tough Theresa" for standing up to Sinn Fein.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Vernon Coaker said: "In the end, the failure to agree in Northern Ireland could have resulted in a collapse of devolution or the return of direct rule - a situation which is not acceptable to any of us.

"So, because a majority in the Northern Ireland Assembly have consented, we are legislating here on welfare reform - legislating in a way which will enable Northern Ireland to move forward and make the continued progress we all want."

A Social Democratic and Labour Party bid to insert a new clause into the Bill calling on the Secretary of State to report after 12 months on the impact of any orders made under the new Act was lost five votes to 171 - a majority of 166.

The Bill cleared the Commons at third reading unopposed and is expected to be similarly fast-tracked through the Lords shortly before becoming law.


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