Monday blog: Why we need to discuss welfare reform in Northern Ireland

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By VIEW editor Brian Pelan

The debate over the welfare reform stalemate in Northern Ireland had not figured highly in the General Election debate until VIEW asked Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey a question about it at a conference on homelessness in Belfast last week.

In response to my question: Did Sinn Fein believe there would be a deal on welfare reform before the General Election or after it was over?

Mr Maskey said: “It is quite unrealistic to think we will get a deal on welfare reform before May 7.

At this present time, I couldn’t give great hope as to the sustainability of the political institutions. Because if it requires an agreement on the basis of the welfare reform deal we are getting at present from Westminster, then a deal is not on offer.”

His remarks led to the First Minister Peter Robinson saying: There will be no renegotiating the deal – we will only discuss how it is to be implemented,” he said.

VIEW has constantly argued that implementation of the Welfare Reform Bill will have a huge impact on some of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

VIEW also notes that, until Sinn Fein blocked the bill on March 9, this year, with the support of the SDLP, all five major parties in Northern Ireland had agreed a deal on it in the Stormont House Agreement, along with massive cuts in the public sector budget.

The consequences of implementing welfare reform are huge.

In a report in 2013, commissioned by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA), Christina Beatty and Steve Fothergill, from the Regional Economic and Social Research centre at Sheffield University, listed some of the main effects of the Welfare Reform Bill if it becomes law in Northern Ireland

•  When the present welfare reforms have come into full effect they will take £750m a year out of the Northern Ireland economy. This is equivalent to £650 a year for every adult of working age.

•  The financial loss to Northern Ireland, per adult of working age, is substantially larger than in any other part of the UK.

•  Belfast is hit harder by the reforms than any major city in Britain.

•  Derry and Strabane are also hit very hard, and generally across Northern Ireland the most deprived areas face the largest losses.

• In terms of the financial impact, Northern Ireland districts occupy three of the four top spots across the whole of the UK, seven out of the top 20 and eleven out of the top 50. Bearing in mind that there are only 26 local government districts in Northern Ireland, out of more than 400 in the UK, this is a disturbingly high representation.

• The biggest financial losses to Northern Ireland arise from reforms to incapacity benefits (£230m a year), changes to Tax Credits (£135m a year), the 1 per cent up-rating of most working-age benefits (£120m a year) and reforms to Disability Living Allowance (£105m a year).

• The Housing Benefit reforms result in more modest losses – an estimated £20m a year arising from the ‘bedroom tax’ for example – but for the households affected the sums are nevertheless still large.

• Some households and individuals, notably incapacity and disability claimants, are hit by several different elements of the reforms.

• The exceptionally large impact of the reforms on Northern Ireland owes much to the UK’s highest claimant rates of incapacity benefits and Disability Living Allowance, two of the main targets for reform.

• By lowering incomes more than elsewhere, a key effect of the welfare reforms will be to widen the gap in prosperity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Welfare Reform debate is too important for it not to be discussed by the political parties in the run-up to the General Election.

VIEW will continue to raise this issue. Other journalists and political commentators should also be posing the hard questions to all the political parties.

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