The Welfare Reform and Work (Northern Ireland) Order 2016 was passed yesterday by MPs.
The delay was caused by Sinn Fein shenanigans, after a disagreement within the republican party in 2013 amid fears that it would damage their anti-austerity credentials in the Republic.
In the summer of that year, Sinn Fein agreed a welfare reform package, then reneged on the deal in early 2014. In late 2014, the matter appeared to have been resolved again in the Stormont House Agreement, until Sinn Fein again reneged on the understanding in the Spring of 2015. Finally the matter was resolved at the end of 2015, as Stormont teetered on the brink of collapse, in the Fresh Start Agreement. As part of that deal, MLAs voted to allow Westminster to implement NI welfare reform.
The whole sequence has given weight to comments made by David Trimble in 2013 – that Westminster was the better place to handle welfare than Stormont.
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There has been a cross-party reluctance to embrace welfare. Nationalists opposed reform full stop. Unionists only ever argued for it on pragmatic grounds of avoiding a fine from the Treasury, rather than on the moral grounds.
The concern of the parties was understandable on one level – there is a lot of welfare money in the Northern Ireland economy. But on another level it was cowardly: welfare reform is deservedly popular with voters in Great Britain and there is no reason to believe it would not be so here.
The welfare state is rightly cherished by voters across the UK, but it has moved far beyond the safety net of the 1940s. The fact that some families have been able to earn more out of work than some other families who are in work is an anomaly that became a source of justifiable outrage. Such excesses were funded by hard-pressed taxpayers whose money could be better spent on schools and hospitals, as Tom Elliott MP said yesterday in Westminster. Now some of it will be.