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Spare Northern Ireland in benefits shake-up, pleads minister

Alex Attwood

Stormont Minister Alex Attwood has cited the Troubles as a reason for sparing Northern Ireland from a major benefits system shake-up.

Mr Attwood said he had “deep concerns” over plans launched in London yesterday for a “radical overhaul” of social security.

And he called for a “time-out” for the province in light of economic circumstances and the legacy of conflict here.

The proposed reforms were unveiled by Tory Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith, with a pledge to end “benefits culture” and get unemployed people back into work.

Mr Attwood's Department for Social Development administers benefit payments in Northern Ireland, but social security funding and policy is still set at Westminster.

Commenting on Mr Duncan Smith's plans, Mr Attwood said: “The cost of big changes, the stress on the social security system and most important of all, the risks of increasing vulnerability for people in need, are just some of the reasons for my deep concerns.” The SDLP Stormont minister also said: “Last week I went to London, met the Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud and argued that Northern Ireland had particular circumstances, including high levels of deprivation and the impact of the conflict on people's lives and experience.

“These factors, the character of proposed reforms and the fact that Northern Ireland will remain in recession until the end of 2012 at least, all means Northern Ireland needs both a ‘time-out' from yet more welfare reform and maximum flexibility around welfare benefits. I believe Lord Freud gave me a fair hearing.

“This twin track approach is a means to find a path through old Tory welfare attitudes presented as coalition new thinking. At the same time, I intend to push on with the conversation around the NI Executive having more control of our financial affairs.”

Mr Duncan Smith yesterday launched a paper for public consultation entitled 21st Century Welfare. Options could see a major reform of the number and type of Tax Credits and benefits.

The proposals could lead to people returning to work with no reduction in benefit until they earn over a certain level.

Mr Duncan Smith said: “A system developed to help the most vulnerable and support people in times of need is trapping people in a cycle of dependency.

“We now have children growing up in households where neither parent works and where the only future is one stuck on benefits. This is a tragedy that we must bring to an end.”

Mr Attwood's party leader and predecessor as Social Development Minister, Margaret Ritchie, also voiced serious misgivings over the reform plans.

She said: “Today's announcement that the Government will effectively push the unemployed into employment could turn out to be a costly and impossible vision.

“Any back-to-work schemes will only be successful if work is available. If the Government is serious about assisting people back to work they must embark on programmes that will see work schemes developed in the next few years.”

Belfast Telegraph