Unionists attack SDLP opposition to Housing Benefit cuts

Senior members of the DUP and UUP have attacked SDLP social development minister Alex Attwood’s opposition to reforms being introduced on housing benefits by the coalition government in Westminster.

Senior members of the DUP and UUP have attacked SDLP social development minister Alex Attwood’s opposition to reforms being introduced on housing benefits by the coalition government in Westminster.

Speaking at Stormont on Tuesday, Attwood told members during a statement on welfare reform:

“I will resolutely oppose certain proposed changes, such as the 10 per cent cut in housing benefit for those on jobseekers allowance (JSA) for more than 12 months.

“I want to identify how to offset the damage and, indeed, to determine whether there are ways to avoid the cut’s implementation here. That is an issue of fundamental fairness, and I recognise that it is also an issue of parity.

“I do not shirk any of that; we should begin to address all of it. I am also taking forward work that will complement my actions on welfare reform, which are designed to protect those most in need.

“I recognise that issues of welfare cannot be taken or addressed in isolation. People who rely on benefits substantially rely on social housing, and, therefore, questions on access to welfare cannot be divorced from those on access to housing.”

Northern Ireland annually receives £3 billion from the Treasury to fund its welfare system with the subsidy based on a principle of social security benefits in Northern Ireland remaining consistent with the rest of the UK. However, in dubbing the move as reckless, the DUP chair of Stormont’s social development committee, Simon Hamilton, expressed his concerns at any moves to break away from the link between Northern Ireland and the wider UK’s levels of benefits.

Following the minister’s statement he concluded:

“Northern Ireland annually receives in excess of £3 billion from HM Treasury to pay our welfare bills. I support seeking flexibility on how changes to the welfare sys tem affect people in Northern Ireland but I urge caution when it comes to playing fast and loose with that £3bn.

“A breach of the parity principle could result in Northern Ireland having to pick up the tab itself for the cost of the specific breach or even the entire social security bill.”

For the UUP, meanwhile, social development spokesman John McCallister was also critical of the minister’s stance, declaring:

“It is disturbing that minister Attwood appeared to threaten to use Stormont to ‘legislate against’ Westminster’s welfare reform proposals. This is an incredibly dangerous and foolhardy threat. Is Alex Attwood really saying that frontline services funded by the Northern Ireland budget should suffer so as to fund his plans to oppose welfare reform?”

On Monday, Attwood will meet with Welfare Reform Minister, Lord Freud to express his concerns.

The split emerged as Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness put on a united front on the cuts coming to Northern Ireland following a meeting with the deputy prime minister. In a joint press statement, they concluded:

“We are particularly concerned about the capital figures that have been applied and the potentially devastating effect the reduction would have on our local economy. The deputy prime minister has acknowledged that the figures are in dispute and has given an undertaking that they will be re-examined by the Northern Ireland Office and the Treasury.”

In the event that their concerns are not satisfactorily addressed however, the first and deputy first minister have threatened to invoke the Despite Resolution Mechanism, used to address disputes between the devolved administrations and Westminster within the Joint Ministerial Committee.

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