Sinn Fein has claimed that Stormont will use £565 million over the next six years to top up the benefits of those who will lose out under welfare reform.
Although there is no reference to that figure either in the budget or in the Stormont House Agreement — the point where Sinn Fein agreed to allow welfare reform to proceed — the party has claimed that an average of £94 million per year will be used to supplement benefit payments.
It appears that the £565 million will begin as a fairly small figure — just £29 million has been set aside for the first six months of welfare reform top ups — but be massively scaled up as welfare changes are rolled out in the Province.
The money would come from what is in effect Stormont’s current account, which is largely used to fund services such as health, education and justice, at a time when Stormont’s finances will be under unprecedented pressure from a combination of a shrinking block grant and increasing debt repayments on the Executive’s increased borrowings.
In a statement Alex Maskey said: “During the negotiations on welfare Sinn Fein achieved a series of protections unique to the north for the most vulnerable in our society, with funds of £565m being made available by the Executive for the next six years.”
And, in an interview with republican newspaper the Andersonstown News Sinn Fein’s northern chairman, Bobby Storey insisted that the additional Stormont payments will continue in perpetuity, rather than only applying to existing claimants.
He said: “We successfully negotiated £565m in welfare protections for at least the next six years, £125m in a Supplementary Payment Fund, which will top-up the benefits of those who may be affected by reductions to their benefits. These protections will apply to new as well as existing claimants.”
On Friday the News Letter revealed some details of the revised welfare bill which will come back before the Assembly next Tuesday. would see Stormont employing a “Discretionary Support Commissioner” and ‘discretionary support inspectors’.
Amendments tabled by the DUP Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey would also water down some of the sanctions in the original bill.
Initially, 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”.
Meanwhile, the UUP has replaced its spokesman on welfare issues just days ahead of a major welfare reform debate at Stormont.
MLA Roy Beggs will on Monday will take over as the UUP’s member of the Social Development Committee, replacing Michael Copeland, who has been absent from Stormont for more than two months on what the party said was “extended sick leave”.
On Friday Mr Beggs said that Sinn Fein’s failure to table a single amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill (there have been 78 amendments in total) signified that the party’s professed opposition to the Conservative-led changes was “nothing but rhetoric”.
He said: “Sinn Fein’s opposition to the bill has now been confirmed to have been solely for the optics, yet that shouldn’t come as a surprise from a party that claimed to fight cuts, after four consecutive years of their own ministers implementing them.”
He said that as a direct result of “Sinn Fein’s obstruction”, Northern Ireland’s public services had lost £100 million in penalties from Westminster.
Mr Beggs said that his party was proposing that Northern Ireland runs “the UK’s first and only pilot scheme for the proposed changeover from DLA to the new Personal Independence Payments (PIP)”.
Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey accused the UUP of a “staggering piece of ludicrous double speak” by claiming to not fully support the Tory reforms, given that the UUP stood on a joint manifesto with the Conservatives in 2010.