Belfast Telegraph

Welfare reform: Penalties for benefits cheats to be more lenient in Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

People making negligent welfare benefit claims in Northern Ireland will face less harsh penalties than their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom, it has emerged.

The new regime was revealed during an acrimonious eight-hour Assembly debate on welfare reform after a two-and-a-half-year delay.

While claimants in Britain who fail to comply with job offers face losing their benefits for three years, the punishment here will be only 18 months.

The Stormont Executive has also agreed not to introduce a civil penalty "for those who negligently make incorrect statements or who fail, without reasonable excuse, to tell DSD of a relevant change of circumstances".

It means on top of extra cash cushions to mitigate the impact of the national welfare reforms, the regime of sanctions here will also be much softer.

The threat of losing benefits for 18 months increases the punishment from the 26-week period under the current welfare system.

The additional protections for claimants in Northern Ireland emerged as new figures also revealed west Belfast was top of the list for the 6,600 households which receive more than £26,000 benefits cap.

A large number of those who exceed the cap are in receipt of benefits or tax credits which exempts them, including Disability Living Allowance - but several hundred of the households would be capped in GB.

West Belfast is ahead with 850 families followed by north Belfast which has 570, Foyle 550, west Tyrone 510, Newry and Armagh 460 and south Down 420.

TUV leader Jim Allister told MLAs: "We are going to sustain this from where we can least afford it, the block grant.

"The money that is there for health and schools, in perpetuity and for new claimants as well as old. Yet we are told this Executive has a vision to rebalance this economy.

"How many millions this and other special concessions will cost no one really knows. We are in the dark and the Assembly deserves better."

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey, chair of the Assembly committee which examined the British reforms in detail, said it beggared belief to hear UUP claims of protecting people when it had been "joined at the hip" a few years ago with the Conservatives who implemented the welfare reform policy. The UUP's Roy Beggs said it was inappropriate to claim his party had done nothing when it had tabled a series of amendments designed to tailor the reforms for Northern Ireland more than two years ago.

Stewart Dickson of Alliance said the two-year delay had caused deep anxiety in the community and put the institutions at risk of collapse - but the Stormont House Agreement was a reasonable compromise his party expected to see put in place.

Sinn Fein Education Minister John O'Dowd said welfare reform had brought Stormont to "the verge of collapse" but trust had been renewed.

Petitions of concern put DUP under spotlight

The DUP has come under severe attack for blocking amendments to the welfare reform legislation.

Peter Robinson’s party moved to stymie more than half of the 80 proposed changes by launching a series of petitions of concern — requiring majorities on both the unionist and nationalist sides of the Assembly.

Former SDLP Executive minister Alex Attwood said it was unbelievable and unprecedented that virtually every amendment had been petitioned.

He said it was “the first time in the life of this Assembly that has happened”.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said it was a case of the DUP saying “do as we say, not as we do”.

Mr Nesbitt said he was shocked that after a meeting of the party leaders, his party had the impression the DUP was content with the UUP amendments but then the controversial petitions mechanism had been deployed.

“It’s a clear case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’. It’s not a recipe for good government, and brings on exactly what the DUP said they wanted to avoid, an unnecessarily divisive debate on welfare reform.”

As the debate opened, Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs branded the DUP’s use of the petition of concern as “shameful” and said it had displayed “the undemocratic nature of their party, which of course has the word democracy in their name”.

The First Minister claimed Mr Beggs had tried to mislead the Assembly in saying the DUP was blocking every amendment and he suspected Mr Beggs was reading a speech someone else had written for him.

Since Mr Beggs is a Deputy Speaker, he also asked: “Is it right that he shows such inane inability to understand the rules of this House?” Mr Robinson defended the use of the petition to prevent the Stormont House Agreement from unravelling, which was “exactly what would happen if we put this out for a free-for-all”.

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