Stormont ministers are at odds over whether payments to support those losing out under the Government’s “bedroom tax” can be distributed amid the devolution crisis.
Democratic Unionist Communities Minister Paul Givan has insisted the approval of the now-paralysed Stormont Executive would have been required to authorise payouts to around 34,000 social housing residents set to lose out due to the policy of reducing benefits to those deemed to have spare rooms.
Sinn Fein Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir has now countered those claims by insisting the 2016 Budget Act enables the release of the payments.
Amid uncertainty around the mitigation measures, earlier the minister’s Sinn Fein colleague Conor Murphy had urged the UK Government not to roll out the spare room subsidy in Northern Ireland.
Otherwise known as the Social Sector Size Criteria, the Government welfare reform on housing benefit will be introduced in Northern Ireland next month.
Extra money provided by Stormont to make up for cuts to the overall welfare budget at Westminster was a key plank in an earlier agreement to save power-sharing. It had been a central Sinn Fein demand.
But the looming implosion of the institutions following Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy first minister means the Executive is currently unable to meet to sign off the payments.
While Mr Givan’s department has stated that Executive approval is required, Mr O Muilleoir has insisted otherwise.
A Department of Finance spokesman said: “The Finance Minister has written to the Communities Minister to confirm that sufficient legislative authority is already in place to allow bedroom tax mitigation payments.
“The 2016 Budget Act, which was approved by the Assembly, provides legislative authority to make bedroom tax mitigation payments. This will cover any expenditure up until March 2017.
“After that date, Section 59 of the 1998 NI Act can be used to ensure payments continue.”
Earlier, Mr Murphy said: “The reality is we are opposed to the bedroom tax, we don’t want to see the bedroom tax introduced here.
“All of the parties in this institutions are opposed to the bedroom tax.
“It is the British government who are legislating for bedroom tax and we told them specifically today that they have no need to legislate for bedroom tax for the north.”
Steps to protect Northern Ireland benefit recipients from London-driven welfare reforms were championed by Sinn Fein and negotiated as part of the 2015 Fresh Start Agreement.
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire rejected the suggestion that the Government would adjust its UK-wide welfare reforms in Northern Ireland.
“It is a UK-wide position on the spare room subsidy,” he said.
“Clearly it is for the devolved administration here to determine if they wish to make a change from UK-wide policy.”
Mr Givan later rejected Mr O Muilleoir’s claim.
He tweeted: “Engaged with my officials on DoF Ministers letter re bedroom tax. Regrettably not a way forward. I continue to explore emergency options.”