Welfare reform penalties could be halved, says McGuinness
Government penalties on Stormont over the failure to implement welfare reform could be halved, Martin McGuinness has said.
The Deputy First Minister said the current £114m 'fine' being imposed by the Treasury could be cut down to £57m if agreed benefit changes are delivered.
But Sinn Fein, DUP and other parties will want to attempt to 'tailor' the upheaval more towards Northern Ireland's needs, with a cash cushion for families and individuals who lose out as a result of the introduction of Universal Credit.
Long-delayed legislation to give effect to the welfare changes is to be brought before the Assembly next month, although the Stormont agreement promises "further work to develop and implement flexibilities".
But the deal commits all the parties, including Sinn Fein, to implementation of the changes in the 2015/16 financial year, with their introduction being completed by the end of March 2017.
Mr McGuinness told the Belfast Telegraph: "I think it is ridiculous that these penalties are continuing to be imposed by the Government."
But he said the money, which would come out of Stormont's block grant from Westminster, could be halved if the legislative timetable is met. Outside of London, Northern Ireland is to be hit hardest by the reforms due to a high proportion of residents in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) and a higher proportion of households with children.
Recent statistics have shown Northern Ireland has more than 120,000 households where no one is working - and over 60,000 children live in homes where no adult is working.
And with the increase in take-up of Disability Living Allowance (DLA), the annual costs have risen by 60%, from just under £500m to over £800m.
A local opt-out on the so-called 'bedroom tax' has already been agreed in principle between the parties. Around 80% of those in receipt here make direct payments to landlords - almost the exact opposite of the situation in GB.
Doubts have also arisen over whether the new IT system being brought in to administer benefits, which has encountered serious teething problems on the mainland, and said to be the most expensive system in the world, will be able to cope with regional differences.
But the DUP has warned the fines would rise to more than £1bn over the next five years.