Belfast Telegraph

Benefits cap won't protect Ulster from the pain of cuts

By Tom Moseley

Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson gave us a good soundbite last week when he said the Government's benefit cuts were "not well understood" in the province.

Not the finest choice of words, perhaps, but his reply to the SDLP's Alasdair McDonnell perfectly captured the debate that is raging over welfare reform.

And it's one that the Government is confident of winning when the measures return to the Commons tomorrow.

Ministers are convinced the package of proposals contained in the Welfare Reform Bill make not just financial, but moral sense.

Public opinion is on the side of a benefits cap - why should anyone be better off on benefits than they are in work? The Government has a moral duty to lift people off benefits and into employment, breaking the 'cycle of dependency'.

When the Bill was thwarted in the House of Lords by a combination of Bishops, Lib Dem rebels and Labour peers, the Tories must have smiled, because Labour could be portrayed as out-of-step with what the public thinks.

Her Majesty's Opposition has adopted an awkwardly nuanced policy, illustrated by its support for a benefit cap, while objecting to the measure's 'implementation'.

But, in Northern Ireland,which experts believe will be hardest hit after London by the changes, the political parties have no such qualms. The impact of the £26,000 benefit cap is focused on the high rents of London.

But it's other measures which are causing concern locally, as highlighted in a report by the Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Group.

The province has a higher concentration of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) claimants than other areas.

Under a part of the Bill that survived a Lords rebellion, DLA is to be replaced by a new Personal Independence Payment (PIP).

While plans to increase the qualification period were shelved under heavy pressure from charities, fewer people are expected to qualify for PIP.

Campaigners also point to levels of persistent child poverty more than double the rate in Britain, with many living in large families, and ask where these people will find jobs when faced with losing benefits.

Cuts to housing benefit for people with spare bedrooms were also cited by the church leaders.

The SDLP will go much further in opposing the changes than its sister party Labour. And the DUP will argue against a large chunk of the measures.

The party supports a cap on benefits, but will oppose the spare room tax and Child Support Agency charges. The effects of the changes on Ulster mean this Bill could be a particularly hard sell.


From Belfast Telegraph