The Assembly has moved Welfare Reform Act through to its next stage almost without amendment.
I say ‘the Assembly’, but I really mean the DUP and Sinn Féin.
And I say ‘without amendment’, but I really mean they have amended as the UK government would permit, with the DUP blocking any unwanted amendments on its behalf.
The DUP and Sinn Fein will say they had to push this through because of the Stormont House Agreement – a deal they themselves largely hammered with the Conservative-led coalition. And it is clear that the Conservative ideological determination to shrink the state is the real driving force here.
But the Agreement explicitly said there would be ‘flexibilities’ to address local need. Where is that flexibility now?
The DUP and Sinn Féin have sold out the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland for the power to cut corporation tax. They appear to agree that the biggest ‘local need’ is not for us to protect the poor, the sick and the disabled, but to cut the tax-bills of international corporations – the DUP because they think we need to compete with the Republic, Sinn Féin because they want to bring us in line with the Republic.
So they united this week to short-circuit my amendment that would have insisted the effects of the Act on the vulnerable would be reviewed after three years. They blocked my amendment that would have ensured NHS doctors – and not the likes of Atos – made the call on whether a claimant was fit to work or not.
They blocked my amendment to require key regulations would be debated by the Assembly before being implemented.
In the rush to get this through they seem to have overlooked the effects of the reforms across the water, where, according to a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, those affected by the new rules have faced ‘poverty, anxiety, debt and health problems’ and food banks have become ‘essential’.
Now, the Green Party will have no truck with anyone who abuses public monies – whether they’re a wealthy tax-dodger or commit benefit fraud. Public funds should be rigorously monitored and used for the common good.
But they should also be used first and foremost to protect the most vulnerable in our society. The Welfare Act, without amendments, will fail on this most basic test.
That’s my concern.