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Leaked document reveals DUP plan to settle welfare impasse

By Adrian Rutherford and Rebecca Black

Stormont could vote on introducing welfare reform in Northern Ireland before Christmas.

MLAs will have a choice of accepting modified proposals or handing the controversial matter over to Westminster to sort out.

That would, it has been claimed, effectively mean a return to direct rule for Northern Ireland.

A leaked document outlines plans by the DUP to finally settle the impasse, which has brought Stormont to the brink of collapse in recent months.

If no deal is struck during the current inter-party talks, they will bring a version of the Welfare Reform Bill to the Assembly.

It would include a £70m fund to mitigate the impact of the changes - up from the £30m previously suggested.

If that is not passed, the document - obtained by the BBC's Nolan Show - says the DUP would expect Secretary of State Theresa Villiers and the Westminster Government to take charge of the issue.

The DUP indicated it would veto any further penalties being paid out of Stormont's coffers to Westminster for not implementing the changes.

Last night it was claimed Stormont risked ridicule if London was left to sort out the shambles.

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said: "It would leave Stormont in a very embarrassing position."

Speaking yesterday, DUP MP Sammy Wilson denied the party was dumping the matter at the Secretary of State's door.

"We are putting it firmly at the door of the parties at Stormont," he told the Nolan Show.

"Before Christmas we will be bringing the Bill to Stormont, the parties will have a chance to listen to the additional measures which we have been able to secure for Northern Ireland."

However, Sinn Fein minister John O'Dowd said "it was best to leave negotiations behind closed doors".

Introduced by the coalition Government, the Welfare Reform Act is the biggest change in the benefits system for decades.

It came into operation in the rest of the UK in April 2013 but has been blocked by Sinn Fein and SDLP, who argue that it would cause hardship for the poor.

As a result the Executive is facing crippling fines from the Treasury, forcing cuts in other areas.

The DUP-drafted document appears a last-ditch bid to end the impasse.

It states: "We will not pass any budget that will lead to the destruction of public services. We therefore will not accept any further welfare penalties or costs.

"In order to bring this matter to a head, at an appropriate point having given the talks process an opportunity to resolve this matter, we will seek Executive approval for amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill and then an up or down vote in the Assembly before Christmas.

"In the event that it does not pass, the Government will be faced with the choice of either legislating directly or covering the costs of the failure to implement welfare reform.

"If other parties fail to face reality on the need to agree an enhanced welfare package it would not be our intention to propose or pass a budget that accepts penalties or welfare costs.

"The Government will be forced to intervene."

Mr Nesbitt warned of dire consequences if agreement cannot be reached.

"The choice is continue to pay fines and have this impossibly, ridiculously expensive new system, or say to London we are incompetent, incapable and can't do it," he added.

Employment Minister Stephen Farry queried why there were no revenue-raising initiatives in the draft budget announced on Thursday.

The Alliance Minister said a package of revenue-raising measures such as increasing the regional rate, water charges, prescription charges and removing the rates cap could raise up to £30m.

He noted the last budget in the Republic had one-third revenue raising measures and two-thirds cuts.

Biggest loser to biggest winner

Environment: cut of £14.8m

Cuts here are expected to affect councils, while reduced opening hours for NIEA attractions has also been mooted, such as Scrabo Tower, Crawfordsburn Country Park and the Giant's Causeway

Culture, Arts and Leisure: cut of £11.3m

Libraries NI has spoken about reducing opening hours, and refurbishment for the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum and Ulster American Folk Park visitor centres may be abandoned

Employment and Learning: cut of £82.8m

Universities and further education colleges have spoken out about how they are expecting 15% cuts in their grants from DEL, the consequences of this could be fewer courses and lower student intakes

Finance and Personnel: cut of £16.9m

Possibility of a voluntary redundancy scheme for civil servants across the board will be launched to reduce the size of our public sector

Social Development: cut of £64.8m

Some social regeneration projects have already been cut back in the light of the impending spending reductions

Justice: cut of £65m

HET scrapped, 300 PSNI temporary workers have already been axed, and there are plans to cut the police overtime budget and reduce the number of probation officers

Agriculture: cut of £10.3m

The Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute could be forced to make redundancies among its 106 staff in Hillsborough as it faces cuts of up to 25% up to 2020.

Regional Development: cut of £13.5m

The department is already struggling with trying to pay for repairs with more than 11,000 street lights across Northern Irleand faulty and road repairs mounting up

Education: cut of 19.4m

Possibility of a teacher redundancy scheme

OFMDFM: cut of £400,000

This budget was protected to allow funding commitments such as the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry to continue its work

Health: increase of £150.4m

Despite gaining money, the cost of treatments is rising due to medical advances, so plans have already been unveiled to cost some minor injury units at the smaller hospitals and respite centres

Enterprise, Trade and Investment: increase of £9.8m

DETI's budget in 2014-15 was reduced by £7.7m on the condition this would be returned if economic conditions necessitated it. The extra money is to allow Invest NI to support businesses and economic regeneration. However DETI also funds the Tourism Events Fund which pumps money into major events such as Culture Night.

'Agree welfare reform or direct rule will be back'

Minister to reveal where axe will fall 

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