Stormont Assembly members have voted to allow the Government to finally roll out its welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
The Legislative Consent Motion tabled by Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey was passed by 70 votes to 22 with the backing of the powersharing administration’s two largest parties, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, after a long debate in Parliament Buildings, Belfast.
Ulster Unionist and SDLP members were among those MLAs who voiced strong opposition to the move.
The motion’s passage will enable long-delayed legislative changes to Northern Ireland’s benefits system to be enacted at Westminster.
The step is part of Tuesday’s ‘Fresh Start’ political deal struck by the DUP, Sinn Fein and the British and Irish governments.
The agreement resolved the vexed wrangle over the Assembly’s non-implementation of the Government’s welfare reforms, and a number of other disputes that had pushed the coalition Executive to the verge of collapse, including the fall-out from a murder linked to the Provisional IRA.
The accord has been fiercely criticised by victims’ campaigners for failing to secure consensus on new mechanisms to address the painful legacy of the Troubles.
The welfare impasse, caused by Sinn Fein’s refusal to sign up to the proposals, has been overcome by the Executive committing to spend £585 million, over the next four years, to provide top-up payments to those losing out under changes to the benefits and tax credit systems. The DUP and Sinn Fein have insisted the controversial so-called bedroom tax will not be introduced in Northern Ireland.
Mr Storey said the region’s welfare model was “fair, affordable and deliverable”.
“In order to make progress it was essential we were creative and innovative in finding a way to move forward, recognising and addressing the genuine concerns that many in this chamber hold about the proposed changes to the welfare system, indeed many of those concerns are held by many of our constituents across Northern Ireland,” he said.
“This has been a difficult balance to achieve. I believe the proposals before the Assembly today represent a practical way, and we could argue the most practical way, of achieving it.”
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said the devolved administration was acting as a “bulwark” against the Government’s austerity policies.
“I think what is being proposed and agreed in part of this implementation plan gives us protection measures better than exist anywhere on these islands for people who are struggling,” he said.
However, SDLP deputy leader Fearghal McKinney accused Sinn Fein of a “U-turn” on welfare.
“We are being asked to hand over to the Tories – or ‘Thatcher’s children’ as Martin McGuinness likes to call it – decisions on legislating on welfare,” he said.
“Only a matter of weeks ago Sinn Fein would have described this as a huge serious mistake but now Sinn Fein are doing Tory austerity, and in spades.”
Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs said MLAs had been given scant information about the proposals before the start of the debate.
He claimed the DUP and Sinn Fein were abdicating responsibility for the welfare issues by handing them to the Government to legislate on.
“To pass this over to Westminster is a clear sign of a lack of political maturity,” he said.
Alliance Party MLA Stewart Dickson said his party was supporting the Welfare Bill but had serious concern about how it was being passed, accusing Sinn Fein and the DUP of playing a game of “pass-the-parcel legislation”.
Mr Dickson was also scathing about the overall ‘Fresh Start’ agreement.
“It’s about as fresh as a student’s bag of rugby gear after a game,” he said.
Tuesday’s substantive debate had been delayed for a period to facilitate a proposal from Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister to adjourn the matter until next week.
Mr Allister, who argued members had not been given advanced sight of the proposed Welfare Bill, was voted down despite support from the SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance Party.
Tuesday’s deal has addressed a multimillion-pound black hole at the heart of the Executive’s budget.
The budgetary crisis had, in part, been caused by multi-million pound penalties imposed by the Treasury for failing to implement welfare reforms.
Wednesday’s special plenary session of the devolved legislature began with Finance Minister Arlene Foster announcing details of a budget-balancing “monitoring round” exercise she has conducted.
The re-allocations saw additional finances being diverted to pressure point areas.
This included around £48 million for the Department of Health, £15 million to the Department for Education and a total of £24 million (capital and resource) to the Department of Regional Development, which has responsibility for road maintenance.
“I believe the Executive is now on course to live within its 15/16 spending controls,” said Mrs Foster.
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