Belfast Telegraph

Welfare reform deal 'still doable'

A deal on welfare reform is still doable, Northern Ireland's First Minister said.

The five Executive parties are meeting today to try and resolve the deadlock over payments.

Earlier this month Sinn Fein said it would not implement benefits legislation, a key aspect of the Stormont House Agreement, because it would hurt the most vulnerable.

Peter Robinson said: "The overall spending envelope has to be maintained or else we would have to be reducing front-line services and I am simply not prepared to put my hand to that."

Failure to introduce welfare changes will cost £114 million in penalties from the block grant next year, the First Minister said.

Talks are on-going between the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein in an effort to design support schemes acceptable to both of them. The parties continue to sound optimistic notes that an agreement can be reached although tangible evidence of progress has yet to emerge.

Mr Robinson said: "It is still doable within the time set out in the Stormont House Agreement but it does require everybody to roll up their sleeves and make sure we get that resolved."

He said there were some flexibilities within the overall spending package settled during the pre-Christmas talks between the five main Stormont parties and the British Government.

Mr Robinson warned MLAs at the Assembly that if the Executive diverged from Great Britain on benefits it would have to purchase its own IT system, costing close to a billion pounds, or ask benefits staff to make manual payments.

"You can imagine the kind of difficulties that would raise."

The latest impasse in the long-delayed process of implementing welfare reforms centres on the scope of Stormont-funded mitigation schemes designed to support those worst hit by the changes to the benefits system.

The dispute flared when Sinn Fein withdrew support for welfare legislation over concerns that the measures were not extensive enough.

Implementing the Government's changes to the benefits system is a key plank of December's wide-ranging Stormont House Agreement.

Without finally passing the repeatedly stalled legislation, the whole deal would likely implode.

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