The sorry saga of welfare reform

Being a politician is a great job and one which I love but it has its frustrations.

One has to contend with cynical commentators and journalists who want to find fault with everything you do and can turn even good achievement into something bad or, even worse, sordid.

There are constituents who no matter how much effort you put into their case will never be satisfied, though thankfully they are a minority. Most are realistic about what can be done and appreciative of efforts made on their behalf.

Then there are the constraints of working in a coalition with people who have radically different views from you and, even worse, behave in the most unreasonable way ignoring the evidence before them and exercising a veto over decisions which you know must be taken.

That is what has been annoying me over the last week. The Westminster Government has started a process of welfare reform which the Northern Ireland Assembly must implement otherwise we will be charged for the additional cost of welfare payments which result from our decision to have a different regime.

Currently the cost of not making changes is £200 million per year starting off with a fine of £5 million per month from January of this year. We are now paying this penalty because Sinn Fein cheered on by the SDLP have vetoed attempts to bring the legislation to the Assembly for debate and decision.

There are aspects of the welfare reform changes which any sensible person would oppose and even some of the Government’s own backbenchers have expressed their concerns about them. In Northern Ireland the Department of Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has negotiated local changes which, while costing us money, will nevertheless address many of the shortcomings and make the welfare changes more workable.

The big variations he has achieved are:

1. The so-called bedroom tax will not apply to existing tenants in Northern Ireland. This will mean that many people, especially elderly people who are still living in the home they brought their families up in, will not be forced to move because their benefit is cut.

2. The Executive has allocated £47 million over the next two years to protect poorer families and elderly from cuts in the help they receive with rates bills.

3. Benefit payments will be made on a fortnightly basis in Northern Ireland as opposed to monthly in the rest of the UK.

4. Housing benefit will be paid directly to landlords rather than to the recipient thus reducing the likelihood of those on low incomes being forced to use their housing benefit for other things and getting into rent arrears.

These changes are the envy of politicians in the rest of the UK who know that we have succeeded in addressing some of the real flaws in the welfare reform proposals. They are things which the SDLP and Sinn Fein wanted yet despite having gained these changes they still veto the bringing of the legislation to the Assembly so we have missed the Government deadline and are now paying £5 million per month for the ostrich-like approach to this matter.

This of course is the ultimate irony. The republicans who spout their anti-Brit rhetoric are handing the Westminster Government back £5 million per month, money which could be used for schools, hospitals, housing etc in their own constituencies. This will rise to £200m per year. Put in perspective this could build 2,000 houses per year or employ 5,000 more nurses. No wonder we are frustrated by this nonsensical approach.

Treasury ministers too are puzzled. The NI Executive is for ever making the case for greater public spending in Northern Ireland but quite understandably the Government ministers point out that we appear to be so flush with money that we are happily volunteering to hand millions back.

There are many who criticise parties in Northern Ireland for failing to resolve the intractable issues of flags, parades etc.

Forget Haass, the real problem is those who think nothing of throwing away millions because they are trapped by their ideological intransigence.

The lesson from this sorry saga is that you can’t trust Sinn Fein or the SDLP with your money.