COUNCILLOR Stephen Burns brought a motion to Down District Council at its last sitting in 2012 challenging the controversial Welfare Reform Bill passing through Stormont.
Public discussion on the welfare bill and its likely effects on Northern Ireland is growing strongly, and there are serious widespread fears that the changes it brings early next year may just be too severe on the most vulnerable of our society. The solutions to dealing with this impending issue are not so easily found with parties disagreeing over a strategic approach to the predicament.
The motion read: “That this Council rejects the welfare cuts agenda and austerity policies being pursued at Westminster which are targeted at the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society and which will create significant hardship and difficulties for many individuals and families living within already socially disadvantaged communities. And that Council calls on the Assembly to amend the Welfare Reform Bill consistent with the specific circumstances and needs of people living in the North of Ireland and to work together to ensure that the most vulnerable in our society are protected.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Burns said: “This bill will leave thousands homeless as there are not sufficient homes for them, benetits will not be paid and when they are, it will sometimes be to the husband in the family.
“And disabled people will have their needs attended to by private companies.” He expressed his deep concern at many radical and fundamental changes to the current welfare system and called on Council to support the motion which was seconded by party colleague Councillor Liam Johnston.
O’Neill Accuses Sinn Féin of Posturing
SDLP Councillor Eamon O’Neill made a strong response to Councillor Burns’ presentation and accused Sinn Féin of “posturing”.
Councillor O’Neill said he thought the main driving force behind this piece of Welfare Reform legislation appeared to be a Tory drive to eliminate ‘abuse of the system’. He said by putting all benefits into a Universal Credit System it promised that this will be simpler, easily managed and would eliminate this abuse.
He added: “We in the SDLP indeed welcome, and have argued for, the provision of a simpler, more accessible benefits system and reform to prevent abuse of the welfare system by a minority.
“But as our party have consistently and vociferously stated on the floor of the Parliament in Westminster and in the Assembly, we do not accept the Welfare Reform Bill, which as it stands, is a shameful attack on the vulnerable in our society.”
Councillor O’Neill agreed the changes to the welfare system would “disproportionately impact on women, children and disabled not only in the Down District Council area but right across the North.”
He said: “This Bill will have a major impact on people’s incomes, their housing, their mental and physical health, their independence and will have a profound effect on the lives of men, women and children.
“It will also have major repercussions not just on benefit claimants but in the local economy resulting in further job losses, shop closures and a significantly reduced rates base for this Council.
“Unlike other parties, and I have to say, the party proposing this motion, the SDLP has a strong track record on Welfare Reform at Westminster, in the Assembly and across other Council chambers. Our MPs, have voted against savage cuts in Westminster.
“Back in February the SDLP called for a Special Committee to be set up in the Assembly to rigorously scrutinize this Tory Bill. It saddens me to say other parties voted us down.
“In the Assembly on Tuesday 9 October, we called on the Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland and the chair of the DSD Committee SF’s Alex Maskey, to ensure these cuts are fully scrutinised and compliant with equality and human rights legislation. We were bitterly disappointed when both refused.
“Having been unable to get support for these moves we went on undeterred and prepared a petition of concern to bring the Bill down and allow space for redrafting in the interests of those worst off – acting with a sense of ambition for what the devolved administration can do for the better when we stand up to the Whitehall and challenge the parameters of parity. I think that this in particular is a point that is not well understood. Parity is an important rule because once broken it could have major financial consequences. Therefore, most Ministers in the Assembly usually run for cover and get behind Parity.
“However, these circumstances are different… this was a major and radical change to our Social Welfare system. This would seriously affect the lives of very many people in Northern Ireland. We have many and more varied reasons for people being on benefits here. Unemployment here is a particular problem of course but even more telling are all those who have been directly affected by the years of murder and mayhem. We also have here a raft of Equality and Human Rights legislation. Is this legislation compatible with them? In these special circumstances the Parity rule needed to be challenged and tested to the full.
“We could not be registered at that time because the SDLP are of the view other parties may at some stage share our level of concern and opposition and act on it. Just as they have done on other issues the SDLP has led on.
“Just as Sinn Fein now agree with the SDLP this Bill should be scrutinised and as much protection as possible is afforded to the most vulnerable in our Society. I am bewildered to the motions purpose. It calls on this Council to reject the Welfare Reform cuts agenda – yet SF MLA’s refused to do so in the Assembly.
“It then calls on the Assembly to amend the Welfare Reform Bill consistent with the specific circumstances and needs of people living in the North.”
“This is simply asking the Assembly to do its job added Councillor O’Neill , saying: “It calls for no additional action. The Bill is currently being scrutinised by the DSD committee in Stormont which makes the content of this motion even more. When the facts of who has been doing what, to protect the most vulnerable from these savage cuts are laid out for all to see, perhaps I am not so bewildered as to the intent and objective behind this motion – it is nothing more than posturing to hide the reality of complete inactivity by Sein Féin on this crucial issue,” added Councillor O’Neill.
Coucillors Comment of Welfare Reform Motion
Aliance Councillor Patrick Clarke said: “I don’t believe this motion is the best way forward. We have to create a welfare system for those that need it most. Rejecting the bill at Council level will achieve nothing.”
Sinn Féin Councillor Willie Clarke said: “We opposed this bill at the Assembly… it has raised false hopes and is playing with fears. We did not have to go to Westminster to oppose the Bill as we have a Deputy First Minister here and we will petition Stormont.”
DUP Councillor William Dick said: “The DUP at Westminster voted against this Bill and Sinn Féein were absent from the Commons. Their MP’s have failed the electorate. My concerns over matters such as Housing Benefits being paid every two weeks are worrying. The reality is if we opted out of the Welfare Reforms we would need to find £200 million and it would cost an estimated 600 civil service jobs.”
Independent Councillor Terry Andrews supported the motion adding the final bill needed to be significantly amended.
The motion went to a vote and it was carried by a majority decision.
Citizen Advice Campaign’s For Better Deal in Welfare Reform
Citizen’s Advice in Northern Ireland has been at the forefront of campaigning for reforms to the Welfare Reform Bill. In 2011, it has made presentations to the Assembly Social Development and Business Committees and other agencies. The links below offer a detailed account of their work and submissions.
Citizen’s Advice is the main advice charity in Northern Ireland and in 2011-12 had 305,337 inquiries from 84,456 clients and there were a separate 122,108 queries on their online service.