SDLP and British government in welfare talks

The SDLP delegation met with Owen Paterson in London on Wednesday The SDLP delegation met with Owen Paterson in London on Wednesday

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The SDLP have told the government they must show "flexibility and discretion" when it comes to changing the benefits system in Northern Ireland.

The comments came after the party met with Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud and Secretary of State Owen Paterson.

The SDLP's three MPs and Stormont Minister Alex Attwood attended the discussions in London.

South Down MP Margaret Ritchie said government proposals would "simply deepen poverty " in Northern Ireland.

The meeting came a week after the House of Commons controversially supported changes to the welfare system including the introduction of a benefits cap of £26,000 a year.

The changes would also stop young disabled people who have never worked, due to illness or disability, from being able to claim a contributory allowance - usually paid to those who have paid a certain amount of National Insurance.

The government also wants to means-test the same allowance after 12-months for those judged capable of working at some point in future.

However, Finance Minister Sammy Wilson said there was a need to be careful about the message sent out about the impact of welfare reform in NI.

"We need to ensure that we do not create unnecessary alarm," he said.

"The executive has taken the issue of Welfare Reform very seriously and has established an sub committee whose remit includes developing an executive response to mitigate against negative impacts and develop policy proposal to achieve long term benefits for the people on Northern Ireland.

"For the SDLP to be sending out a message that the Executive is ill prepared is totally wrong."

Context

Speaking to the BBC after the meeting SDLP MP Margaret Ritchie said since the levels of poverty in Northern Ireland were greater and there was a legacy of conflict there should be "flexibility and discretion".

She also said the government were taking a model of reform based on the south east of England and was trying to impose it on Northern Ireland .

"British legislation in a Northern Ireland context doesn't work," she said.

Once the reforms are ratified at Westminster, legislation will have to be presented at Stormont.

It is understood that Lord Freud is to travel to Northern Ireland to discuss the issue with Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland.

Mr Paterson was unavailable for interview after the meeting.

He issued a statement which said it was the time to reform the welfare system and "simplify it, so work always pays ".

He said the reforms were a work in progress and confirmed that discussions would take place with the Department for Social Development.

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