Ben Lowry: Stormont should pioneer further welfare reform after initial successes

Stormont should pave the way and go for an even lower welfare cap than the rest of the UK
Stormont should pave the way and go for an even lower welfare cap than the rest of the UK

Around seven years ago, at about the time the then coalition government came to power, BBC Question Time discussed the proposed benefits cap of £26,000.

The various panelists were asked if such a restriction was too harsh.

Max Mosley, the multi-millionaire former president of the FIA, and Rageh Omaar, the international TV news correspondent, said that it was too harsh.

I think the reason that I remember their responses so clearly is because it caused me to feel despair.

How would there ever be the reform of the welfare system, that was so obviously needed in the UK, if we could not even get people to agree that a benefits cap was essential?

As the response of Mosley and Omaar indicated, it is often affluent people who are opposed to such reforms,

They act as if money grows on trees and as if it is generous of them to talk in such a fashion about welfare provision for less privileged people – as if, perhaps, such sentiments mean that that vast wealth gaps in society, from which they do so well, are then OK.

But working people, on the other hand, were always much more in favour of welfare reform than the comfortable chattering classes – and for good reason.

Imagine the frustration that someone could feel going out to work every day on the minimum wage and learning that some families are earning more than £26,000 a year in benefit – equivalent to £34,000 a year before tax, sums of money that they are unlikely ever to earn.

This explains why welfare reform had such widespread support, particularly the benefits cap, and why much of the Labour Party came to back it.

The cap was later lowered to £23,000 a year in London, and £20,000 a year outside the capital.

The cap recently was introduced in Northern Ireland – there had been no local political support for a cap until the UK government said that if we wanted a more generous system here than the rest of the UK we would have to pay for it.

After a crisis at Stormont, a cap was finally introduced in Northern Ireland.

Now it seems like madness that it took so long to introduce so obvious a restriction.

I continue to believe that Northern Ireland should pave the way for further reform, and introduce an £18,000 cap – equivalent to an income of about £22,000 before tax (Ben Lowry: Be bold Stormont – go for a lower benefits cap than GB).

That is not only well above the minimum wage, it is above the living wage.

We would then be signalling that we want to move from being a part of the UK that is addicted to public money to being one that is more self sufficient.

And I am sure we could strike a deal at Westminster to get some extra cash for things such as infrastructure (ie money to finish the A5 and A6 roads, and the York Street Interchange in Belfast too).

Never listen to the nonsense that political policies such as welfare reform are an assault on vulnerable people.

If done properly, they are the very opposite: by putting an end to excessive state expenditure on people who do not need so much of it, we free up more money for the seriously needy.

Consider for example the madness of giving free prescriptions to someone such as me, who can easily afford to pay for my asthma inhalers, and diverting funds from more urgent parts of the NHS.

The same applies to Disability Living Allowance. If 12% of the population is on DLA, as is the case on Northern Ireland, it means much less money for 3% or 4% of the population who are clearly in serious need of such financial assistance.

It is now being said that the introduction of the benefits cap across the UK has led to tens of thousands of people joining the workforce – and no wonder.

After the £26,000 cap was introduced in 2013, 22,000 people stopped claiming benefits altogether. The Department of Work and Pensions research claimed that people affected by the cap were more likely to find work than those who claimed less than the cap.

People are sometimes reluctant to advocate policy positions such as welfare reform perhaps because it sounds self-righteous.

But I have no problem saying that an overly generous welfare system will deter some people from working – because I know the same principle applies to me.

If I was able to earn more money out of work than I can do in work, I would be likely to hand in my notice in the morning.

I would probably feel miserable, because I would have more money but would lose my daily structure.

But I suspect the temptation to be free from work would be so great that I would give up work all the same.

It isn’t sensibe for government benefits to encourage such a mindset,

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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