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Passage of delayed benefits shake-up to be fast-tracked

By Noel McAdam

Westminster is to kick-start the implementation of welfare reform in Northern Ireland next week - just days after taking powers back from Stormont under the 'Fresh Start' deal.

Legislation bringing about the long-delayed benefits changes in the province is to be debated in the House of Commons on Monday - and will then be fast-tracked to complete its passage before Christmas.

The rushed timetable would have been blown off-course if the Assembly had agreed to delay passing the legislative consent motion the day after the latest DUP/Sinn Fein agreement.

But Jim Allister said the timetable had more to do with DUP leader Peter Robinson's announcement of his retirement ahead of his party's annual conference this weekend.

In the Assembly last Wednesday, Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance backed the TUV leader's suggestion that the debate should be postponed until MLAs had a chance to read the legislation in full.

Last night, North Antrim MLA Mr Allister said: "It is wrong to say the Westminster timetable wouldn't have been met if Stormont delayed for a week. It was calendar-driven, like the agreement itself, because of Peter Robinson's retirement plans.

"The news about how Westminster will handle the matter reinforces my belief that the debate on the legislation at Stormont should have been delayed. I have no issue with the Mother of Parliaments taking the grown-up decisions which our own toy town Assembly is incapable of making, but I do have an issue with voting to approve something which I haven't read."

And the SDLP added in a statement: "[We] opposed the use of a legislative consent motion on welfare in the strongest possible terms.

"Other parties were given 45 minutes to scrutinise the Sinn Fein/DUP proposals before an Executive meeting was called to vote on the document. That is no way to seek all-party agreement.

"Sinn Fein and the DUP have rushed to hand legislative power back to the Tories. That is a critical mistake."

But DUP leader Mr Robinson said: "The fact that the legislation is going through Westminster means there is certainty about that issue being dealt with.

"We will have the best welfare system in the whole of the UK, and, most importantly, we have in place - ready for when the Chancellor takes his final decisions on working tax credits - a way to help those who are the working poor.

"That is people who would otherwise be better off staying at home than going out to work without tax credits. One hundred thousand families will benefit from the decision that we took."

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