Robinson: Government could take back welfare powers if no deal

Peter Robinson said 'there was no money tree in the back yard'
Peter Robinson said 'there was no money tree in the back yard'

The First Minister has said he will seek an Assembly vote on handing welfare powers back to London if Sinn Fein refuse to implement reforms of the benefits system.

DUP leader Peter Robinson insisted that, if his republican partners in the Executive refused to deal, an intervention by the UK Government would be the only way of preventing the collapse of the power-sharing administration in Belfast.

“We have no money tree in the back yard, there is no additional money coming to us for welfare, we have to take those decisions,” he said.

“If we don’t take those decisions then I think it is incumbent on the Government in London to take back those powers, to implement welfare reform themselves – the alternative would be for the Assembly to fall.”

The impasse over the non-implementation of welfare reforms in Northern Ireland is heading toward a crunch, with a looming make-or-break in-year review of the Executive’s budget next month.

Despite agreeing to introduce the changes to the benefits system in December’s Stormont House political deal, Sinn Fein subsequently baulked at the move, claiming Executive-funded top-up measures to support claimants losing out were not as comprehensive as they had envisaged.

The DUP presented a final set of proposals on the top-up schemes to Sinn Fein on Tuesday and is awaiting the party’s response.

Mr Robinson, who has accused the republicans of welching on the deal, said mounting multi-million pound Treasury penalties for non-implementation, which are accruing at a rate of £2 million a week, will render the Executive unsustainable in the wake of June’s budgetary ‘monitoring round’.

He said this would force a senior civil servant to take control of the Executive’s purse strings, but with a restriction that only 75 per cent of last year’s annual spend could be spent this year.

The DUP leader said in such circumstances funds would soon run dry and the Executive would collapse, forcing a return to direct rule.

Mr Robinson stressed that the UK Government retained the right to legislate on any matter in the UK. He acknowledged that convention dictated the Prime Minister should seek the support of a devolved institution before intervening on an issue under its control, but expressed confidence a majority of Assembly members would vote for the step.

The ‘petition of concern’ Assembly voting mechanism would enable Sinn Fein to effectively block any motion calling for intervention, even if it was backed by a majority of MLAs, but Mr Robinson predicted the Government would still look at the raw voting numbers, to assess where most support lay.

“I suspect a majority of Assembly members would approve the Government making those changes rather than the Assembly falling,” he said.

“It would be an unusual move made necessary by the inability of Sinn Fein to make difficult decisions.”

Mr Robinson said he still retained hope that an agreement to implement the Stormont House deal could be reached.

“If no agreement is reached by Sinn Fein then clearly we can take that to the Assembly and ask them, rather than punishing people with 25 per cent cuts to public services (if a civil servant took charge) because we haven’t got an agreed budget, then I would have thought the Assembly would want to vote for the Government to take back that power.”

“They mightn’t be able to get an agreement on a cross-community basis (due to a petition of concern) but I think the Government would want to take into account where the majority were on those issues.”

Sinn Fein Assembly member Daithi McKay said his party was committed to the “full implementation” of the Stormont House Agreement.

“Sinn Fein is committed to achieving the full implementation of all the outstanding issues of the Stormont House Agreement, including welfare,” he said.

“Work is continuing on all of these issues. A much greater challenge to the Executive comes from the £25 billion in further cuts promised by the Tories which would result in a huge hole in the budget.

“All of the Executive parties need to work together to develop a common approach to deal with the challenges presented by the British government’s austerity agenda.”