Welfare reform is moral, says Villiers

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers

There is a moral case for welfare reform because it will reward those seeking work while also providing a fairer deal for taxpayers, the Secretary of State has said.

Theresa Villiers also said that there was an “urgent” need for the Stormont Executive to agree on the issue, warning that it faces astronomical bills in the future.

For more than a year, Sinn Fein has refused to agree to reform of the benefits system, despite Northern Ireland being given certain concessions not available to other parts of the UK.

Over the last week, the DUP — which is broadly supportive of implementing the changes —has traded blows with Sinn Fein about the issue.

Mr Villiers told the News Letter: “I very much hope that we will see an agreement on welfare reform because I believe very strongly that there is a moral case for welfare reform.

“This is not just about austerity; it’s actually about delivering a system that is fair to those who need help but also fair to the taxpayers who fund the system.

“At the heart of what we want to do is to ensure that it always pays to go out to work.”

She added: “We’re trying to deal with the perversity of the system that we inherited where people could often find themselves better off on benefits than they would be if they went out to work.

“So I think that these reforms will be right for Northern Ireland as they are for the rest of Great Britain.

“It is worrying to see the financial consequences of failing to agree on welfare reform in Northern Ireland are quite considerable currently; I’m afraid they will get a great deal higher as we get closer to the point at which the current computer systems for welfare are shut down by the DWP as everyone in Great Britain transfers to the new system.”

She said that once the Executive has to run its own computer systems, it will be “incredibly expensive”, meaning that “reaching agreement on welfare reform is becoming more and more urgent”.

Meanwhile, Alliance minister David Ford has said that “Sinn Fein has to recognise reality” on the issue.

The Justice Minister said: “We’ve managed to get some slight modifications around some areas. That’s probably as far as we can push it.

“We’re now at the point where the Treasury is effectively fining us £5 million a month and that rate will increase significantly during this current year.

“I cannot see on what basis Sinn Fein think they are serving anybody’s needs by refusing to accept that reality.”

He added: “We’re close to the point where we could be told: If you’re not adhering to the standard UK rules, set up your own welfare system. Never mind the cost of the welfare benefits, spending potentially £100m plus on setting up the system would be a total waste.”