Sinn Fein “cannot do the maths” when it comes to welfare reform, because more than 100,000 households would actually be better off under the new regime.
That is the view from the Alliance Party’s Stewart Dickson, who said the time has now come to change the focus of the debate about benefits reform.
Rather than being all about those who stand to lose out from welfare system changes, he said discussion should instead now turn to the many who stand to gain.
He was backed in this view by Jim Allister.
TUV leader Mr Allister told the News Letter he had been “surprised” to learn that, according to official estimates, 102,000 households would be better off to the tune of about £38 per week on average under the proposed Universal Credit system.
The figure was given in evidence to the social development committee on Thursday.
In the best interests of trying to move the situation forward that I will not be travelling to the US to take part in events marking St Patrick’s DayMartin McGuinness
The same estimate also shows that, by comparison, 97,000 households will be worse off by £31.
Meanwhile, 90,000 households would not see a change to their entitlements.
Mr Dickson said that, while Sinn Fein had caused a crisis at Stormont by dropping their support for the Welfare Reform Bill, it also presented an opportunity to puncture the “scandalous” claims that the changes will be hurting the majority of claimants.
East Antrim MLA Mr Dickson said that Sinn Fein’s decision last week to ditch its support for the Welfare Reform Bill has meant that, in reality, “those people are not going to gain that £38 per week by 2016, which is when they are scheduled to get it”.
When it comes to the welfare reform package, he said: “All we have been hearing has been the negative story.
“Most scandalously, Sinn Fein and the SDLP are shamelessly plugging a line that there are more people that are going to lose than gain, and that they are the defenders against these vile and horrible Tory cuts.”
He suggested that it was a case of not letting the truth “stand in the way of a good story”, adding that the crisis at Stormont may provide an opportunity to re-frame the debate and that “we might start to see the narrative change”.
Whilst he said there would be some who will lose out due to the changes, and efforts must be made to protect them, he added that “there are 102,000 winners”.
As to where that leaves Sinn Fein’s claim to be defenders of the poor and the working class, he said: “They can’t do the maths. It does not boil down into simple soundbites.”
The estimates of who will gain and lose actually date back to November and were compiled by the NI Statistics and Research Agency.
Mr Allister said he would have been “trumpeting” the figures if he were the social development minister, and said they had been largely overlooked amid the “hysteria” surrounding the planned reforms.
“Sinn Fein and their partners, by delaying welfare reform, are delaying the move to advantage those families in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“We hear very little talk of the denial of this advantage to those 102,000 families.”
Universal Credit – a big part of the planned reform of the benefits system – would replace the raft of credits such as Jobseekers’ Allowance, Housing Benefit and Disability Living Allowance.
Mr Dickson said the plan was for even those current claimants who stand to lose out under Universal Credit to be able to rely on a top-up fund, which would ensure they are not receiving less than at present anyway.
Meanwhile, it emerged over the weekend that neither of Northern Ireland’s political leaders will attend St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Washington because of the stalemate over welfare reform.
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness will instead try to thrash out a resolution to the impasse threatening the power-sharing institutions at Stormont.
Mr Robinson, who had previously stated he would not go the White House if the row was unresolved, used Twitter to confirm he would be staying in Belfast on Tuesday.
He said: “White House agree priority is to maintain momentum in finding a resolution to welfare issue. Best to be in Northern Ireland dealing with it.”
Mr McGuinness said that “in the best interests of trying to move the situation forward that I will not be travelling to the US to take part in events marking St Patrick’s Day”.
He added: “The number one priority for me and my party is finding a resolution to the difficulties currently facing the Executive.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny is still expected to attend the Washington festivities.
See Morning View.