Belfast Telegraph

Welfare reform plan: Law expert says movement 'likely' in bid to safeguard public money

By Michael McHugh

A blueprint for welfare reform in Northern Ireland is now on the horizon, a law expert has said.

A spare room tax will only be introduced for new benefit claimants, while the Executive is likely to follow the example of its Scottish counterpart on other measures, the director of the Law Centre said.

That means putting more money into a discretionary support fund to help those struggling, and addressing issues which will not cost a lot to deal with, Les Allamby added. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) in London has warned that tens of millions of pounds may need to be found from elsewhere in the budget if Northern Ireland's block grant – which runs public services – is cut to compensate for a failure to deliver benefits savings.

Westminster reforms include a new universal credit payment to replace child tax credit and housing benefit. But the legislation is still going through the Assembly at Stormont amid concerns that low-paid and unemployed people could lose out.

Delays to welfare reform could cost the Stormont Executive £200m a year in penalties by 2017, finance minister Simon Hamilton has said.

Mr Allamby added: "With no desire to lose significant sums from public expenditure, there is likely to be some movement from Sinn Fein and the DUP.

"Whatever happens, it remains to be seen whether any movement will be enough to avoid the financial penalty."

The financial impact of the welfare cuts is greater in Northern Ireland because of the large number of people who claim incapacity benefit and disability living allowance, opponents have claimed. Planned changes include sanctions for those turning down jobs and a cap on benefits paid to a single family.

BACKGROUND

Earlier this week, Stormont set aside £15m to cover Treasury fines over the failure to implement welfare reform.

The finance minister announced the diversion of the money as part of the regular reallocation of unspent funds to meet the monthly penalties of £5m for the first quarter of this year.

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