Northern Ireland

Assembly row breaks out over welfare reform plans

Nelson McCausland
Image caption Sinn Fein wants Nelson McCausland and other ministers to agree to a deferral for a week

A row has broken out in the Stormont executive over Sinn Fein's call for a deferral of the Welfare Reform Bill.

The bill allows for the biggest shake-up in welfare for decades.

Changes include cuts to housing benefit and require anyone claiming Disability Living Allowance to undergo an assessment.

Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey wants the bill, only tabled in the assembly last week, to be deferred to allow negotiations with the government.

He said there was a sense that the Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland needed to fight harder with Sinn Fein and others to stop some of the government's changes, particularly in light of devastating job losses in recent weeks.

"Our frustration has been that we have been arguing with other ministerial colleagues that we need to put up an argument to the British government on a collective basis, with the strength of unity behind us that the British have, and that has not really been done," he said.

Mr Maskey, who chairs the social development committee, said a deferral, even for a week, would allow time for negotiation with London ministers.

DUP Finance Minister Sammy Wilson MLA said was "totally surprised by this Sinn Fein welfare reform bombshell".

"Only last week Sinn Fein ministers agreed that the Welfare Reform Bill could be brought to the Assembly. Indeed, they recognised that the timetable was tight," he said.

Mr Wilson said the consequences for delaying the bill would be felt by welfare claimants, civil servants and public spending across all government departments.

"Sinn Fein took so long to agree this bill at executive level there is no slippage time at all available if the bill is to clear the assembly and be in place for April 2013," he added.

"If the welfare reform changes are not implemented in Northern Ireland in the next two years the executive will face a bill of over £200m to make up the difference between the money which would have been paid by Westminster for the new welfare reform proposals as opposed to the existing system."

The bill was due to have its second reading on Tuesday.

It has been claimed Northern Ireland will be hit harder than any other region outside London, if the planned welfare reforms are pushed through Stormont.

The coalition government has heralded the bill as the biggest welfare revolution in more than 60 years.

The bill also includes changes to housing benefit and employment and support allowance.

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