Unionists call for welfare proposals as the final budget deadline looms

SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell
SDLP leader Alasdair McDonnell

Unionists have challenged nationalists to bring forward a financially viable alternative to welfare reform - which the SDLP has insisted it will not be “bounced” into supporting.

With unionists determined to push through the reforms and Sinn Fein adamantly opposed, all eyes turned to the SDLP yesterday, as their numbers are key when the assembly votes on the matter on Tuesday.

But the party’s leader Alasdair McDonnell said he will not be “bounced” into what he described as “an artificial deadline” for agreement.

The SDLP plans to block the controversial bill.

“There needs to be a mature negotiation: DUP ‘stand and deliver’ politics is ill-judged and ill-timed,” he said.

Unionists have repeatedly warned that the Executive is facing financial meltdown if the benefits system reforms are not implemented.

Dr McDonnell said: “What is happening now is the parties here are faced with an artificial deadline and a crisis that could and should be averted.

“We will not walk away from the negotiating table. We will not be bounced by the DUP deadline. They should recognise the need for mature negotiations not short term tactics.”

But DUP leader Peter Robinson said next week was the genuine budgetary deadline .

He said the SDLP had affirmed on Friday morning that it would not take a position until Tuesday, but then went on to announce it would be signing a petition of concern.

He added: “If they had the least knowledge of the statutory budgetary timetable, they would know that next week is the deadline.”

Nothing in the SDLP’s actions changes the legal timeframe, he said. “The budget still looms with SF and the SDLP indicating that they will do nothing to avoid £600m of cuts to our public services.

“On Wednesday, I challenged those who were dissatisfied with the proposal published by the DSD Minister to bring forward any amendment that was legally competent, operationally doable and financially within the agreed spending envelope. I said the DUP would accept such an amendment. Not one party, in the three days that followed, has brought forward a single amendment.”

But Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy urged the DUP to think again.

He said: “We welcome the position of the SDLP in supporting a petition of concern against the Welfare Bill being brought to the Assembly on Tuesday. I am calling on the DUP to withdraw the bill and re-engage with the other Executive parties in negotiations to achieve welfare protections agreed at Stormont House for children with disabilities, adults with severe learning disabilities, the long term sick and large families.”

Despite agreeing to introduce the changes in December’s Stormont House political agreement, Sinn Fein reneged on the deal amid concerns that the Executive-funded top-up measures to support claimants losing out were not as comprehensive as they thought had envisaged.

Mr Robinson has also said he would seek a vote on handing welfare powers back to London to prevent a total collapse of the assembly.