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'Rancour' in welfare reform debate

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Mervyn Storey said there was a lot of rancour in the debate about welfare reform

Mervyn Storey said there was a lot of rancour in the debate about welfare reform

Mervyn Storey said there was a lot of rancour in the debate about welfare reform

The rancour needs to be removed from the debate over welfare reform in Northern Ireland to allow more informed examination of the problem, a Stormont minister has told the Assembly.

Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey said he accepted people had genuine concerns about the implementation of the changes to the system in the region but he stressed that others would actually be able to escape the "benefits trap" if they were introduced.

The row over the failure to implement the UK Government's welfare reforms - primarily due to Sinn Fein opposition to the policy - has threatened the very future of the powersharing institutions.

Non-implementation has seen the Executive landed with an £87 million penalty from the Treasury for the year, a sum that is set to increase in the future.

The penalty has intensified a Stormont spending crisis which earlier this month forced Executive ministers to ask the Treasury for an emergency £100 million loan from the National Reserve to enable them to balance the budget.

Mr Storey, who recently replaced Nelson McCausland as social development minister, urged all sides of the debate to engage in serious analysis.

"I do believe that over the last number of weeks and months we have lost sight of an informed discussion, there has been a lot of rancour," he said during Assembly question time.

"There has been a huge amount of concern and I will in no way underestimate or try to minimise the genuine concerns that many have in terms of changes to welfare."

But he added: "Equally I want the House to grasp this point that there are many families today in Northern Ireland who are trapped in the benefits system and currently that system doesn't allow them the flexibility to exit the process."

The impasse is currently one of the issues on the agenda for discussion in a new political talks initiative convened by the Government involving the Executive's five parties.

The minister stressed the need for resolution.

"Failure on our part collectively to resolve this issue can ultimately lead to the doors being closed in this institution," Mr Storey warned.

"And let's remember if that happens - and I know members are going to say here we go again threatening - but in any of the conversations that I have had both in terms of Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK there is clear expectation that failure to have this issue resolved will have serious consequences."