Frightening cost of welfare deal will hit services, warns Allister

Jim Allister said questions remain unanswered
Jim Allister said questions remain unanswered

Despite more than 18 hours of debate on the Welfare Reform Bill, many questions still remain unanswered, Jim Allister has said.

The legislation passed through consideration stage on Wednesday night with the support of the DUP and Sinn Fein and it will return to the Assembly for further consideration stage in a fortnight.

Mr Allister said that the seemingly open-ended financial commitment which Stormont is making to benefit claimants was “frightening”, given that it would come at the expense of other public services in Northern Ireland.

He said it was clear that “while the Assembly is legislating for welfare reform, at the same time it is preparing to divert money from schools and hospitals to nullify its effect. It could only happen in Stormont”.

The North Antrim MLA added: “Sinn Fein boasts £565m will be spent on this exercise.

“The only certainty is that this money will be siphoned off the block grant, the money which runs our schools, our hospitals and all our public services ... the philosophy of the Stormont Executive is clearly benefits before jobs. So much for rebalancing the economy.

“With 6,600 families averaging £30,700 per year in benefits (which equates to earnings of over £40,000 per year), where is the incentive to work?”

Meanwhile, UUP MLA Roy Beggs said that changes to the bill which had been secured by his party will make it a legal requirement that medical reports are available and reviewed as part of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment process, and the minister will be required to pilot the transfer from DLA to PIP before fully rolling out the change.

But he again criticised the DUP for its mass veto of almost 50 amendments tabled to the bill before the debate even started: “Whilst I am delighted that these two key changes were made to the bill, I remain disgusted at the approach the DUP took to our other amendments.”

PUP leader Billy Hutchinson condemend the Welfare Reform Bill as “a kick in the teeth for families living in poverty across Northern Ireland”.

The Belfast councillor said: “I simply can’t work out the logic whereby the poor are begrudged a spare bedroom in their homes, yet we have an Executive minister arguing for a 10 per cent cut to the rate of corporation tax for the rich.”

But the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said: ‘The greatest significance of the Welfare Reform Bill coming before the Assembly is not the mechanisms by which it is voted upon and agreed, but that years of delay have now ended. Money has been wasted on fines and penalties for more than two years, but finally there has been an acceptance that such waste cannot continue.”