Belfast Telegraph

Welfare reform: A compromise could pave the way to making progress

BY LIAM CLARKE

WE badly need a compromise on the vexed issue of Welfare Reform. The continued impasse is even more damaging than the stand-off on flags, parading and the past.

Failing to reach agreement threatens to wreck our budget and undermine public confidence in the ability of the Executive.

This is inexcusable when a viable deal, as outlined today, is ready to be implemented. It may not be ideal but there is no alternative in sight and the meter is running. Indecision incurs penalties of £5m a month.

The compromise which the DUP says it agreed with Sinn Fein last June and which has already been approved by London is no free ride -- it will mean cuts in other departmental budgets. Beyond the extra money it will allocate to claimants, which will at least be spent on local services, we are having to subsidise London to tweak its IT system if we want to operate a modified benefits system here.

If we diverge further, that price goes up until we eventually reach a point where we are asked to develop our own software and run it on our own computers. Nelson McCausland, the Social Development Minister, told the Executive on Thursday that that would rack up a £1.8m bill.

This is a momentous issue. The cost of fluffing it will impact on departments like health, which accounts for 40% of public spending here. Yet it could only be raised under Any Other Business. It came at the end of a meeting where there were few decisions except one on olive oil regulations.

Welfare reform wasn't up for discussion because Sinn Fein resisted bids to put it on the agenda. This is no way to run a government -- our two big parties need to end these stand-offs.

Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson must crunch this problem as a matter of urgency.

Whatever we choose to pay claimants, our block grant will assume we pay the same levels of benefit as in Britain. If we pay more we have to find the difference. So we have to strike a compromise, and spell out the cost. If the first ministers can do that between them, then it could pave the way to further progress.

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