Stormont welfare ‘top-ups’ revealed ahead of Assembly debate

Mervyn Storey
Mervyn Storey

Key details of the welfare reform agreement between the DUP and Sinn Fein have emerged for the first time since December’s deal which saved Stormont.

Under amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill tabled by DUP Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey, there would be a significant breach of parity – the principle that taxes and benefits are equal right across the UK – and the establishment of a more generous benefits system in Northern Ireland.

The amendments, some of which will not be published until Friday morning but which have been seen by the News Letter, would see Stormont employing a “Discretionary Support Commissioner”.

They in turn will appoint “discretionary support inspectors” and appoint other staff to oversee Stormont’s ‘top-up’ of national welfare benefits.

The commissioner would oversee the “discretionary support inspectors” and annually report on the standards of their reviews about individual cases.

The money spent on the benefit ‘top-ups’ will come from what is in effect Stormont’s current account – the bulk of which is used to fund areas such as health, schools, police and transport.

Roughly £60 million has been set aside to cover a year’s worth of ‘top-up’ benefits.

Although some details of how the bill has been watered down to secure Sinn Fein’s support have now been revealed, it is not yet clear if republicans’ claim that no one on benefits will lose out under the reforms has a basis in law.

MLAs will debate the bill on Tuesday.

Under an amendment tabled by Mr Storey, Stormont would set up a fund for “discretionary support” to top up the benefits of those who will lose out under the reforms.

Mr Storey’s amendment states that “discretionary support is not to be regarded as a social security benefit”.

However, despite the attempt to make a distinction in law, public money would still be used to pay for what would be a form of benefit.

When asked what the ‘discretionary support inspectors’ will actually do, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social Development said: “The role of the officers will be similar to that currently provided by the Social Fund Office – they will provide claimants with the opportunity to have their original social fund decision reviewed by someone who is independent of the Social Security Agency.”

Yesterday was the deadline for amendments to be tabled ahead of Tuesday’s consideration stage, and none have been tabled by Sinn Fein.

That suggests that the amendments tabled by the minister are in fact those agreed between the DUP and Sinn Fein.

Under the original bill, if “for no good reason” a benefits claimant either refused to take a job or lost a job which they have taken because of misconduct, they could have had their benefits reduced for up to three years. That period has now been halved to 18 months.

Mr Storey is also now opposing a clause which would have sanctioned claimants who through negligence over-claim and then fail to take “reasonable steps to correct the error”.

It is understood that amendments to be published today include at least one unusual joint amendment tabled by the UUP and SDLP.

And an amendment tabled on behalf of the Assembly’s Social Development Committee would remove a clause which would sanction a benefit claimant who refused offers of work.

Writing in today’s News Letter, Ukip MLA David McNarry claims that the bill will be “a cheater’s charter”, with “no incentives to work”.

The Stormont House Agreement contained scant details of the deal which finally persuaded Sinn Fein to agree to welfare reform. Under its timetable, the legislation should have been brought to the Assembly last month.