Benefit rates are the same whether somebody lives in Derry or in Derby.
There are, however, significant differences between circumstances here in the North of Ireland and in Great Britain.
Here 8.6% of the working age population are on Incapacity Benefit, compared to 4.5% in the UK as a whole.
These proposed changes will force the migration of 76,000 claimants from Incapacity Benefit to Employment and Support Allowance.
The SDLP’s concerns centre on a number of issues that are critical to the lives of our citizens and to our economy.
We will be appealing to the Assembly to recognise both the serious implications of this reform and the need to deviate from parity on it.
We believe that the timetable set out for the delivery of this reform is ambitious, unrealistic even.
500 claimants per week, for three years, will be moving from Incapacity Benefit to ESA and one wonders if the Social Security Agency has the capacity to deal with such numbers.
There is a likelihood that around 40% of claimants in the North will pass – or should that be fail? – the Work Capability Assessment, resulting in 20,000 current Incapacity Benefit recipients finding themselves in the Work Related Activity group of ESA.
Others who have partners in work may fall out of the benefits system altogether.
What and where is the work that these claimants are to be moved into?
Will it be suitable for former Incapacity Benefit claimants?
There is too little clarity on the specifics of this reform.
We will be appealing to the Social Development Minister, Nelson McCausland, to make a case in London around the specific circumstances and needs of our society here in the North, as his predecessor did, rather than simply rubber-stamp another Tory attack on the vulnerable.
The window-dressing around this reform sells it as ‘getting the able back to work’ – which we applaud – but it does not do enough to convince us that legitimate, vulnerable claimants won’t suffer as a result.
There are people out there who abuse the system – they need rooted out.
But we must ensure that the system does not abuse others.
The assessments being carried out by ‘independent’ health care professionals are already giving cause for concern.
Do they have the ability to carry out assessments of people with mental illness or medical conditions with fluctuating degrees of severity such as Parkinson’s and MS?
The Citizens Advice Report refers to ‘hurried medicals in which the Health Care Professional does not look at them but at the computer screen’ – and I am sure we have all heard stories to this effect.
The SDLP believes that amendments must be made to these proposed changes in order to protect people with genuine illness and disabilities.
Liaison with GPs or social workers who are familiar with the claimant would lead to a fairer, more beneficial assessment process.
We need to stop focusing on punching out figures and recognise that we have a duty to protect those who will fall into poverty and worse without adequate support.
Finally, the benefits we are being told that this reform will bring are idealistic.
On an operational level, the implementation of ESA will see flawed tests and very high rates of appeal – placing huge pressure on staff and cost to the Department.
This is not about party politics – this is ‘parity politics’. For the most part, we have witnessed the Assembly toe the parity line – and replicate the legislation passed over from Westminster.
However, there are grounds for not meeting parity when there is no parity of circumstances.
Our SDLP MPs fought against and voted against these draconian cuts in Westminster – as a devolved Assembly, we cannot just shake our heads in disapproval, lie down and accept them.
The success of a Government should be measured on how it treats its most vulnerable citizens – and we have a long way to go.