A Tory tool to cut costs

Mark H Durkan
Mark H Durkan

People across the North are already suffering because of welfare cuts, many of which are being imposed prior to the introduction of universal credit.

That will simply allow the Tory-led Government to say that their welfare reform, in the guise of universal credit, will result in more money being paid in benefits.

That fallacy seems to have been swallowed and has certainly been peddled by some in the Assembly and now, through voting down our progressive motion, they have foisted it on the people of the North.

Although the Conservative welfare agenda is hurting vulnerable people across these islands, its impact will be even harsher here in Northern Ireland.

The SDLP has been in regular contact with Lord Freud and the Secretary of State on this issue. The last Secretary of State spoke of tweaking universal credit and we told him that, if that was his message, we would actively oppose it.

We have told Freud that housing benefit changes in particular would not work, given the segregated character of housing in many parts of Northern Ireland.

The firm evidence of less access to affordable childcare here - very different from and much worse than in England - is a central feature of how here is different, and welfare needs to reflect that, given that the purported purpose of reform is to help people back into work.

The levels of disadvantage and disability, the emotional, mental and physical needs resulting from years of conflict and the risk of alienation mean that welfare needs to be different here. That is why we call on the Assembly and the Executive to escalate their efforts in opposing the imposition of those draconian reforms here.

Let me be clear: the SDLP does not oppose the idea of simplifying the social security process. We do not oppose in any way the concept of getting people back to work when or if they are able.

We do not oppose welfare reform, but we do oppose unfair reform and unfair is precisely what many of the reforms are.

Previously, the Assembly debated changes to incapacity benefit entitlement, the assessment of unwell people as fit to work and their being harassed to look for work. Little evidence has been received that those work capability assessments take into account the true effects of some people’s conditions or their ability to work, particularly in cases of mental illness and conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, which fluctuate in severity.

The SDLP accepts the need to prevent people from abusing the system, but we must not create a system that abuses people. Changes to housing benefit are also certain to have a much more pronounced impact over the coming months. The change to the upper age limit for the shared accommodation rate has the potential to make homeless thousands of young men and women or result in them living in Dickensian conditions.

Sticking with Dickens, I think that, once again, it is a tale of two cities, as the fallout from that cut will be much greater here than across the water, given the dearth of houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) here. The reforms are not about simplifying the system; they are purely a Tory tool to cut costs.

The Tories also have great expectations for PIP - the personal independence payments, which are to replace disability living allowance (DLA). The expenditure on PIPs will be 20% less than that on DLA. That is money coming directly from the pockets of people in need.

That reduction is already under way, with people being assessed as being able to walk 100 metres after barely demonstrating the ability to walk 10 metres. Northern Ireland has a higher percentage of people on DLA than the rest of the UK, which is largely attributable to the legacy of the Troubles.

We need a unique solution for what is a unique situation.

The proposed changes to DLA also throw up many consequences for carers and, in turn, their families who rely on the carer’s allowance. Have the Government estimated how many carers will be affected or, indeed, how much those carers save the public purse? It is essential, in our opinion, that eligibility for carer’s allowance is established through both levels of the PIP daily living component to protect carers and enable them to continue providing care.

These cuts will hurt people who work, too. The divide-and-conquer approach of the coalition Government is to portray welfare reform as a move to cut down on scroungers and gain support from working people to do so.

However, working families with disabled children, of whom, again, there is a higher percentage here than elsewhere on these islands, will be worse off to the tune of £1,400 a year. That, along with the other reductions in benefits, will inevitably have a knock-on effect on the wider economy, with people having less money to spend on essentials, let alone small luxuries, and local businesses, shops, cafes, taxis and hairdressers will all share the pain at a time when they are already suffering.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated the cost to the Northern Ireland economy at £450 million. Can we afford that?

We in the SDLP support incentives for people to get off benefits. However, there must also be work for people to get into, and I welcome the capital programmes announced by the Executive last week and the jobs that they will inevitably create.

Any Government should focus on job creation rather than austerity measures that only serve to perpetuate the dire economic situation. We also support a simplification of the system, particularly any measure that will streamline the tax credit system, which is a real nightmare, especially for cross-border workers.

We have consistently called on the Assembly to prioritise the issue of welfare reform. We have called for the establishment of an ad hoc Committee to optimise our collective ability to scrutinise the Bill and the wider welfare reform agenda.

That agenda will have effects much wider than solely the remit of the Committee for Social Development, and we believe that fuller participation in the Committee Stage of the Bill can help us identify potential wriggle room and chances for damage limitation. However, these calls have been rejected by other parties.

As it stands, this Bill will be scrutinised by the Assembly’s Social Development Committee, of which I am a member, and I can guarantee that it will have my attention and that of my party.

Although Members here are aware of the repercussions of the legislation being handed over from Westminster, the real danger in us blindly accepting it is where it might lead. There is simply too much detail lacking in the Welfare Reform Bill, and when the primary legislation is passed in Britain, it is open to future changes and future abuse. We have seen the lack of social conscience of the current coalition Government, so imagine what we might expect from a single party Tory Government in future.

We acknowledge attempts made by the Minister but they are a safety net, not a solution. Hardship funds need to be more substantial and more sustainable. We will have signed up to parity on Tory terms. This is our chance to get a handle on the issue and to shape our own primary legislation.

I am sure that every Member in the House has at some stage been asked by a constituent or by a visiting school why we got into politics, and I am sure that most, if not all, of us have, at some stage, given the hackneyed answer of, “To make a difference.”

This Bill offers us a real opportunity as legislators to deliver for the people of the North and for Stormont to show that it is a real devolved government and not merely a glorified county council, here to debate issues but not impact positively on the lives of our citizens.