Eamonn MCann - Rage at Stormont over workfare (or not)

Posh-boy Chancellor George Osborne barely had time to draw breath after his feed-the-rich, fleece-the-poor budget last week than a succession of Stormont politicians was mad-dashing for the microphones to express anger and dismay at the likely effect of the measures on the less-well-off in this part of the world.

Even Sammy Wilson was incandescent. Of course, Sammy incandesces easily.

But what does Sammy propose could or should be done to counter Osborne’s plans?

Nothing so far. But maybe he’s working on it. Or not.

The ‘workfare’ scheme introduced at Westminster, supposedly to acquaint the unemployed with the “culture of work,” provides the most obvious precedent for the budget measures. Workfare involved major companies being supplied with free labour and the unemployed threatened with loss of benefits if they balked at taking up the offer. The measure was so obviously unfair that it immediately sparked widespread protests and disruptions which were supported by millions who ordinarily would run a mile from militant action.

Such was the intensity of opposition that a number of key firms quickly withdrew from the scheme, fearing damage to their reputations. The Government then executed a U-turn, at least to the extent of lifting the threat to remove benefits.

All the main parties here had opposed this measure, too. Or so they said. But had they really?

Social welfare is a devolved matter. It does not come under Westminster but under Stormont. Workfare could only apply in the North if endorsed by the Assembly. The plan was considered at a meeting of the Assembly’s Social Development Committee on January 26th last - after the introduction of the scheme but before the announcement of its partial withdrawal. Here, in their entirety, are the minutes of the discussion:

“The Jobseeker’s Allowance (Work Experience) (Amendment) (NI) 2012: Question put and agreed. ‘That the Committee for Social Development has considered Statutory Rule SR 2012/14: The Jobseekers Allowance (Work Experience) (Amendment) (NI) 2012 and recommends that it be confirmed by the Assembly.’”

The decision was unanimous. The members of the committee present were: Alex Maskey (SF), Mickey Brady (SF), Gregory Campbell (DUP), Judith Cochrane (Alliance), Michael Copeland (UUP), Mark H. Durkan (SDLP), Alex Easton (DUP), Pam Lewis (DUP), Fra McCann (SF) and David McClarty (Independent).

The minutes were signed off on February 2nd by committee chairman Alex Maskey. They contain no mention of any member using the committee as a platform to urge opposition, much less resistance, to the measure.

That is, none of the MLAs went as far as members of the House of Lords have done in the past year in response to attacks on pensions and the NHS, as well as on social welfare.

Eamonn McCann writes in the Journal every Tuesday