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Assembly endorses reform of benefits system after marathon day of debate

By Noel McAdam

A bid to delay the biggest social security shake-up in 50 years was thrown out after a marathon debate in the Assembly.

After a 10-hour stand-off and dozens of speeches, a Sinn Fein amendment calling for the welfare reform legislation to be deferred was defeated by 60 votes to 42.

Sinn Fein and SDLP voted to defer the changes, but unionists and Alliance combined to ensure it now goes on to the next stage, where it will be examined by a Stormont committee.

A bid to shift the issue to a special committee was halted at the death, just before midnight, after Speaker William Hay ruled it out of order.

Mr Hay said social development committee chairman Alex Maskey could not refer the Bill without the approval of committee members.

The timetable for the changes is back on track, at least for now.

In a long day and night of high drama in the Assembly, Sinn Fein tabled an amendment demanding deferral of the legislation despite DUP warnings that the move was “foolish and dangerous”.

It accused its republican power-sharing partners of a “sham fight”, but Sinn Fein insisted a delay was the best way to wrest concessions from Westminster.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland (right) said: “The truth of the matter is we have run out of road. If we defer this there is no time left.”

He said deferral would mean the Social Fund — which makes emergency payments to 250,000 cases every year — would come to an end next March and hit “the most vulnerable in society”.

It could also mean the axe for the 1,500 jobs of people who administer part of the the social security system for all of the UK.

“This is D-day, if you kill off the Social Fund you put people out of work. How can anyone in conscience go for deferral that would result in something as appalling as that?” the DUP Minister added.

Sinn Fein’s Mickey Brady, moving the amendment, said there was no intention to “kill” the legislation or to confront the DUP.

Instead, he argued deferring the second stage of the Bill would buy time for the concerns in the legislation to be ironed out and for talks with Westminster on key concessions to take place.

“Every political party in the Assembly has expressed serious concerns about this legislation, and that includes the Social Development Minister and his party, and indeed, members of his own party voted against the Bill in Westminster,” he said.

“Party colleagues and I have met representatives of the four main churches, disability groups, advice groups, the unions and many others, all of whom expressed grave misgivings about the impending benefit cuts.”

The SDLP told Sinn Fein it would support a joint ‘Petition of Concern’ which would require a majority vote from both unionist and nationalist sides of the Assembly for the legislation to progress.

It would also contained a request that Mr McCausland set up a committee to examine the impact of the reforms and increase leverage in the on-going talks with the coalition.

The proposal was a revival of an SDLP proposal ignored by the Assembly earlier this year, but also designed to test whether Sinn Fein was serious about delaying.

If the minister declined to establish the “special equality and human rights” sub-committee, the SDLP argued it could be brought forward by the chair of the Assembly’s social development committee, Mr Maskey.

Accusing the DUP of “scaremongering”, SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell said: “The Assembly and committee can, and should, work whatever hours are necessary to get this Bill right.”

But Mr Maskey said his party could not support the petition.

The UUP agreed the current Bill was not “fit for purpose”, but, rather than axe it, would attempt to change it in its committee stage from now until the end of November.

Defeating the Bill was just not an option... so was all the windy rhetoric on the hill last night nothing more than a sham fight?

A sham fight was how Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland described the Assembly debate on welfare reform — and he had a point. The issues at stake are serious, and while there is still some room for manoeuvre, there is no doubt about the eventual outcome.

Everyone knows we cannot afford to break parity with Britain, and despite its protests, Sinn Fein gave the game away early.

“At the outset I would state that tabling a reasoned amendment is not about defeating the Bill,” Mickey Brady told MLAs.

Alex Maskey even said Sinn Fein had acted “responsibly” by allowing the Bill to reach the Assembly floor and not lodging a Petition of Concern that could have ensured its rejection.

The South Belfast Member said Sinn Fein instead wanted to focus on trying to negotiate changes with London — but conceded those efforts may ultimately fail.

To kill the Bill would have been too costly, so success for nationalists and republicans who oppose the reforms would have been to delay them.

Mr McCausland meets Lord Freud, the minister in charge of welfare reform, next week, and a victory for nationalists would have allowed the DUP man to say that there was deadlock, that we were a special case and the peace process had to be considered.

But that would have been another sham fight. Twenty years ago deadlock in Belfast was a trump card for shaking money out of Downing Street. These days it is a busted flush.

You could practically hear shoulders shrugging at the Tory Conference in Birmingham.

Delay would bring only negative consequences for Northern Ireland, David Cameron warned ominously in a UTV interview. He even insulted our intelligence by conjuring up images of hard-working Northern Ireland folk subsidising feckless Londoners.

“People in Northern Ireland go to work, work hard, pay their taxes, and those taxes have been, when we came to power, supporting people living in London claiming housing benefits on homes that cost them £40-£60,000 a year,” Mr Cameron said.

In fact, Northern Ireland is the poor relation and we are each subsidised by about £80 a week — a sum the Conservatives are |determined to reduce. At least Mike Penning of the Northern Ireland Office spared us the flannel.

There was more a ‘come on, make my day’ attitude in his comments. He warned that delay would affect spending in Northern Ireland and dismissed the special case argument.

There are “lots of special cases around the country”, Mr Penning harrumphed, urging the Assembly here to “take the deal”.

If the eventual outcome is a foregone conclusion there is no doubt that the changes will hit us all badly and politicians are right to be worried.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that the cost to Northern Ireland will be £450m a year. Big money. It is, for instance, the annual asking price for the |devolution of corporation tax or, looked at it another way, it is NIE’s total investment in the electricity network since 2007.

Benefits tend to be spent locally, often in the tills of the retail sector. That will add pain to a reform package which is fine in theory. The aim is to streamline the system. Mr McCausland has cited 30 tax breaks and benefits for those on low incomes. In principle, a single universal credit is a simpler system which can iron out anomalies and ensure that work always pays. The snag is that it will pay out less than before, leaving the poor worse off.

The planned personal independence payments are more elegant than the disability living allowance which they replace — but the crucial flaw is that they will pay out 20% less than DLA.

The Executive’s room for manoeuvre is limited and this is no time for grandstanding.

Mr McCausland and the DUP should stop talking about those who don’t want to work. This is not a relevant factor at a time when, under the Executive’s watch, unemployment rates are the highest in the UK. This is no time to stigmatise the poor. What we need is a benefits take-up |campaign to ensure that people get every penny they are entitled to within the new rules. We also need to ensure that some family benefits are paid to women — as they are most likely to ensure that the whole household benefits.

We need to ensure that payments are made more frequently than the monthly system proposed for England to help families budget.

This sort of flexibility can only help around the edges — but it can help.

Sinn Fein have shown that their hearts are with the poor, but a soft heart works better when guided by a hard head.

The place where they just might make a difference on this issue is not in Stormont but in Westminster, where the Liberal Democrats, the junior partners in the coalition, are signalling that they may oppose the welfare cuts.

George Osborne plans to reduce UK welfare spending by a further £10bn. Westminster is the place where Sinn Fein’s five MPs might have some influence, unless they actually prefer sham fights and windy rhetoric at Stormont. Certainly the principle of abstentionism leaves Northern Ireland punching below its weight.

The changes what they mean

By Victoria O’Hara

The proposed overhaul of the welfare system means the introduction of a universal credit to cover a range of existing benefits.

There will also be a personal independence payment, reassessed every three years, to replace disability living allowance, and housing benefit reforms.

Universal Credit will bring six different benefits under one single payment system.

  • If you receive jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit they will be paid as a single payment.
  • Sanctions will see benefits withdrawn for three years if three jobs are refused in a three-year period.
  • This will generally see those who refuse work on one occasion in 12 months having their benefits taken away for three months.
  • If claimants refuse a second job within the next 12 months, benefits will be taken away for six months.
  • And if a third job in the next 12 months is rejected, benefits will be taken away for three years.
  • Tax credits will also come under universal credit.

DLA payments will change to the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) for people of working age between 16 and 61, but DLA will be retained for children and pensioners.

  • The change will mean all 118,000 working age people currently on DLA in Northern Ireland—which is currently mainly self-assessed in Northern Ireland — will be reassessed and receive PIP as an alternative.
  • Medical references and evidence will be required, but the form itself is filled in by the claimant.
  • Every claimant will undergo an independent assessment of their medical condition.
  • The decision will then dictate which rate of payment they receive, but the current 12 different rates of DLA will be cut to eight.

It is estimated around 9,000 people are likely to be affected by the cuts to housing benefit.

Under changes to social housing, tenants will no longer be able to live in houses with more bedrooms than people. This means if a single person is living in a two-bedroom flat, they will not receive the same amount of housing benefit.

Case study - Margaret Galloway

Margaret (69) is a retired civil servant and member of Age Sector Platform. She lives in Newtownabbey with her husband, who is disabled.

“The Welfare Reform Bill is a concern for me and many other pensioners who are unsure about what its impact will be.

“I was grateful to be one of almost 200 older people who gathered for the Northern Ireland Pensioners Parliament earlier this year, at which welfare reform took centre stage with an entire session dedicated to the topic.

“From this session, it was clear that there was a great deal of confusion and lack of awareness about the process of welfare reform and its implications.

“Some of my concerns relate to the changes to housing benefit and pension credit.

“It is unclear whether the under-occupancy penalty will apply to pensioners in receipt of housing benefit who may be living in larger family houses that are no longer filled to capacity.

“The changes to pension credit and the proposal that a savings limit is introduced may also have severe consequences for a certain group of pensioners who constantly seem to be penalised for their forward thinking.

“I am also concerned the proposal to carry out regular assessments on DLA claimants will be extended to pensioner claimants.

“It appears that couples where one person has not yet reached pension age will be treated as if both are of working age, meaning they will receive universal credit instead of pension credit.

“The implications of this are unclear at present, but I’m sure many older people will worry about the effect this will have on their weekly income in the coming years.

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