Belfast Telegraph

Vulnerable sold out by the Big Two - DUP and Sinn Fein

By Steven Agnew

The Assembly has moved the Welfare Reform Act through to its next stage almost without amendment. I say "the Assembly", but I really mean the DUP and Sinn Fein.

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 largely hammered out with the Conservative-led coalition.

But the agreement explicitly said there would be "flexibilities" to address local need. Where is that flexibility now?

The DUP and Sinn Fein 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 Fein because they want to bring us in line with the Republic.

So, they united 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".

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.

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.

  • Steven Agnew MLA is leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland

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