A refusal to implement required welfare reforms in Northern Ireland will only heap further burden on hard pressed families, a Stormont minister has warned.
Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland told Assembly members it would be indefensible if they rejected a Bill aimed at bringing the region into line with law changes already introduced at Westminster.
The DUP MLA urged caution as he opened a crucial Stormont debate on the proposed reforms.
Sinn Fein, the DUP’s main partner in the powersharing government, has tabled an amendment which, if passed, would halt the region’s Welfare Bill in its present form.
The move has angered Mr McCausland and his party colleagues, who claim that a failure to implement the so-called parity legislation would cost the Northern Ireland Executive more than £200 million, as it would have to set up its own welfare system.
Key features of the Bill include a universal credit to cover a range of existing benefits, a personal independence payment reassessed every three years to replace disability living allowance and housing benefit reforms.
Sinn Fein insists the changes are flawed and targeted at the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in society.
The republican party has urged MLAs to vote for a deferral on the Bill to enable further negotiations with the coalition Government in London
Mr McCausland said the Bill was not perfect but said changes could be negotiated without killing it outright.
He said a deferral was impossible due to a tight legislative timetable.
“I would say to this House that we have a clear choice,” he told the Assembly at the outset of what is set to be a marathon debate.
“If there are substantial costs involved in changes we want to make to this Bill we will have to pay for them.
“Breaking parity is a choice we can make but it will have huge costs. Those costs will be met through less money for schools, less money for hospitals, less money for the police, or else we will have to find the additional resources from introducing local charges to meet the costs.
“As Minister for Social Development I would urge in the strongest possible terms that such an approach would be dangerous to our economic position, hugely damaging to our public services and indefensible in terms of the possible consequences for those people who are struggling to work and support their families with little or no support from the public purse.”