There is a prevailing view that Northern Ireland now has the most progressive welfare system in the UK, thanks to the Fresh Start deal.
This view needs to be held up to serious scrutiny.
The Executive may have reduced the immediate impact of welfare reform in Northern Ireland – and transitioning the most vulnerable to the new reality of reduced payments is a positive step – however, there are a number of serious issues with the current approach, not least, despite spending some £585million in the next four years, the Executive has chosen not to fund its own economic inactivity strategy.
Northern Ireland consistently has one of the worst economic inactivity rates in the UK, we are failing thousands of people in Northern Ireland by providing inadequate support to help those who want to work, get back to work – in refusing to fund the Department for Employment and Learning’s flagship policy, we are effectively leaving some people on the margins of society and the economy.
Ministers also need to inform those receiving additional welfare payments, what happens after the money runs out – we are creating a steeper fiscal cliff for numerous individuals and families on additional welfare payments to fall off.
By comparison to the Fresh Start welfare deal, our early intervention and skills budgets are paltry – yet investing in struggling communities, children and families is the best way to sustainably help people to get and keep jobs; becoming active participants in the economy and society.
I would much rather some of the additional £585million be spent on our economic inactivity strategy, early years and skills budgets. Investing in more sustainable and targeted support for those families and communities currently dependent on welfare would be, in my opinion, the mark of a more progressive society.
We are in danger of maintaining many people’s reliance on welfare, whilst providing no additional support by improving their educational attainment, skill levels and experience.
Despite the headlines and what the Executive parties might say; the current approach to welfare and the economy will fail many and can be significantly improved.
• John McCallister is an independent MLA for South Down