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.
DUP: 105,000 hardworking families hurt in UUP stunt
DUP Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey has accused the Ulster Unionist Party of punishing vulnerable people and hard working families after the party voted against the Legislative Consent Motion on welfare reform.
Mr Storey said: “Just over two months ago Mike Nesbitt boldly announced the UUP would attend talks because he had a plan to resolve welfare reform. Today Mike led his party through the lobby to oppose a total of £585 million pounds to ensure that Northern Ireland has a welfare reform settlement which is better than any other region of the United Kingdom.
“This is truly the kind of political stunt for which Mike Nesbitt should apologise.
“Today’s proposals include £240milion to help 105,000 hardworking families who would be hit by the recently announced cuts to tax credits. Whilst Danny Kinahan, Reg Empey or Denis Rogan didn’t vote on the tax credit proposals at Westminster, today the UUP MLAs did turn up, but only to oppose helping those low paid workers for whom tax credits can be a vital lifeline.
“Whilst Ulster Unionist policy flip-flops have become so commonplace that they are barely worthy of note, the level of cynicism motivating Mike Nesbitt’s party is significant. The fact the UUP would vote against proposals which will help not those entitled to benefits, but also low paid workers shows that no one is safe in the Ulster Unionist search for relevance and what they think might provide some short-term party political advantage.
“There is no leadership of any kind in evidence from the Ulster Unionist Party. It seems that Mike Nesbitt doesn’t care who might be run over by the latest passing bandwagon upon which the UUP have jumped.”
SDLP: A ‘slap in the face’ for our democracy
SDLP Talks Negotiator Alex Attwood MLA has said that a DUP/Sinn Féin Legislative Consent Motion on welfare is a slap in the face for democracy and lets down people on welfare and the working poor.
He said: “The DUP/Sinn Féin LCM on welfare is a grotesque abdication of political responsibility. Today the DUP and Sinn Féin gave into the next phase of Tory assault on the working poor and people on welfare.
“The LCM means that the DUP and Sinn Féin politically and publically endorse the welfare provisions of a Bill currently before Westminster which freezes welfare benefits for four years and gives a London Minister unilateral power to reduce the Northern Ireland benefit cap. They are now full partners with the Tory Elite.
“The reason is clear and cynical, it’s an act of evasion. The LCM means that the DUP and Sinn Féin shirked facing the Assembly or facing the people in signing off on Tory elitist welfare dogma.
“There was also enough Assembly time to pass legislation on existing welfare challenges. In any case, to hand over lock, stock and barrel to Westminster hard won authority of the Assembly and to concede it to the House of Commons and House of Lords on future welfare legislation is a slap in the face for our democracy. It lets down people on welfare and the working poor.
“The DUP and Sinn Fein hope money for tax credit and welfare mitigation – indeed useful but with many questions still left hanging – would cover their tracks on the use of an LCM. The haste of the DUP and Sinn Féin in forcing through an LCM gives the game away. People will see through it.”
Alliance: We would have preferred delay on welfare vote
Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson has said his party reluctantly voted for Westminster to implement welfare changes but it would have preferred to delay the vote on the issue.
Mr Dickson said the ‘Fresh Start’ deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein was a ‘sticking plaster solution’ which other parties had not been privy to until late in the process.
Mr Dickson said : “This is not a fresh start or a comprehensive agreement. What we have is another crutch for us to limp down the road until the next crisis. We have not even had the chance to truly look at the document, which is a two-party deal in a four-party coalition.
“It would be better delaying this a week in the interests of good governance, to allow proper scrutiny of a document which is supposed to map out the future of Northern Ireland. Instead, we have been issued this document and told to sign it.
“One of the results is a decision which could and should be taken in the Assembly is now being abdicated to Westminster to reduce the collateral damage Sinn Fein could incur from making this deal. Just like their refusal to sit in Westminster, Sinn Fein MLAs appear to be placeholders, rather than actual public representatives.
“We must urgently fix the shambles that is our budget, that’s why we supported today’s motion. While we understand the concerns over the constitutional and institutional implications, there is no other option if we wish to start fixing our budget.
“This is not an endorsement of the deal but rather a demonstration that Alliance is committed to solving the welfare reform crisis and placing our future on a sound economic basis. However, I dismay over the fact it took us months to get here and in order to do so, this institution abandoned its responsibility to legislate.”
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