Executive row on welfare reforms deepens

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THE Executive was in turmoil on Friday night ahead of debating new laws which have been described as the biggest shake-up since the introduction of the Welfare State in 1945.

The two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have adopted opposing positions, with Finance Minister Sammy Wilson accusing Sinn Fein of being on a “flight of fantasy” in its opposition to new social welfare legislation.

The Welfare Reform Act 2012 aims to get more people into work and cut down on benefit fraud.

It also includes reforms to the Disability Living Allowance, child support and housing benefit.

Sinn Fein MLA Alex Maskey said that his party will attempt to defer the bill – due in front of the Assembly next week – until “significant amendments” can be made to it.

The act will be brought in front of the Assembly for approval before becoming law in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister David Cameron has insisted the changes are deeply “progressive and thoughtful”, and claimed that welfare dependency has harmed too many parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland.

Mr Maskey insisted that Sinn Fein will “press for fundamental changes to this Bill to ensure the maximum protections for those on benefits and in low-paid employment”.

However Mr Wilson retorted: “Sinn Fein isn’t just on a flight of fancy they’re now in the stratosphere of fantasy politics”.

The minister accused Sinn Fein of putting up a “sham fight”, and said they could be putting down a Petition of Concern.

“The true measure of Sinn Fein’s sincerity would be if they had put down a Petition of Concern to stop this legislation,” he said.

“They and the SDLP would be capable of doing this but they have decided not to, preferring to put up a sham fight instead.”

Mr Wilson said that the proposals are difficult and “not all of our choosing”, but insisted “we have to face reality”.

“No amount of bluster will change the hand that we have been dealt,” Mr Wilson said.

“It’s time for Sinn Fein to face reality that delay of the Welfare Reform Bill could cost 1,300 jobs and severely hurt 250,000 people who benefit from the Social Fund.

“This fund helps the most vulnerable yet failure for the Bill to pass by April 2013 will see the fund’s end.”

Mr Wilson warned that failure to implement reform will also mean each Stormont department will have its budget cut to meet the £200m short-fall.

“There is also a failure to understand that Northern Ireland doesn’t have a computer system to process any payment system outside the Department of Work and Pensions set-up,” he said.

“To develop a Northern Ireland system would take time which we don’t have and an IT investment of £20m.

“As for Sinn Fein’s proposal to transfer fiscal powers to Stormont, this is so nonsensical it doesn’t even merit serious debate.

“It’s simple. We would have a fiscal deficit of nine thousand million pounds. How would Sinn Fein propose to fill that gap.”

The Ulster Unionist Party claimed the Executive is “in crisis” over the Welfare Reform Act.

East Belfast UUP MLA Michael Copeland said the reform of the United Kingdom’s welfare system is “without doubt the most radical reorganisation of the social security system since the very foundation of the welfare state”.

He slammed the bill as “not fit for purpose”, but said it was no longer a question of if the reform will come to Northern Ireland, but when and in what form.

“On March 8, 2012, Parliament’s Welfare Reform Act received Royal Assent, yet seven months later and Northern Ireland’s Bill has yet to even go through its preliminary stages,” he said.

“During all this time the Bill has been delayed by political posturing in Stormont Castle between Sinn Fein and the DUP. The Ulster Unionist Party has been urging the Social Development Minister to bring the Bill to the Assembly in order to have these discussions in public and let the committee get on with its crucial work of examining the Bill.

“Sinn Fein’s decision to table a ‘reasoned amendment’ shows an Assembly group not at ease with itself on the issue of welfare reform. I have no doubt that they, as I do, have major concerns and I look at their amendment and I can agree with many of their points. But further delay is not the answer.

“The deadlines are now so tight that for every week that the Bill is delayed, it means a week less for the committee and stakeholders to adequately scrutinise the Bill.”

Another Executive party, the SDLP last night said that it is considering how it will respond to news that Sinn Fein will bring forward an amendment.

“We will be considering whether Sinn Fein’s proposed amendment is the most effective way of opposing this Bill,” said Foyle MLA Mark H Durkan.

The Traditional Unionist Voice, who are not represented on the Executive joined the DUP in rounding on Sinn Fein, blasting them as “economic buffoons”.

He claimed that Sinn Fein’s attempt to delay the Welfare Reform Bill is “a cynical stunt”.

“The Welfare Reform Bill would not even be up for its second stage debate on Tuesday if Sinn Fein had not nodded it through the Executive. So, it’s a bit late to get all macho now,” he said.

“Of course, the truth is that Sinn Fein will be content to see others vote it through, rather than carry the can for the huge block grant cuts which would result from its rejection. Sinn Fein’s supposed stance against ‘Tory cuts’ is a phoney war, conducted merely for the optics.

“They could have totally blocked the Bill in the Executive, but meekly assented to its passage.

“Their stance once more exposes the barrenness of their economic approach: they demand ever more state benefits, but never face up to the reality that it is the British connection which funds them. They talk foolishly about fiscal power for Stormont, without ever thinking about the reality that our local tax take does not match our spending. Sinn Fein are the economic buffoons of Stormont.”