SDLP MP for South Down Margaret Ritchie MP, a former NI DSD Minister, has hit out at the Conservative-led government’s plans for welfare reform.
Speaking from Westminster following Northern Ireland Question time she said: “We in the SDLP believe in real welfare reform not this unfair reform. I am deeply concerned that the introduction of Universal Credit and the bedroom tax is going to hurt the most vulnerable in society.
“It must be recognised that our society still bears the physical and psychological scars of decades of conflict and as a result has a higher proportion of people in need of welfare support. The government has a duty to protect these people and must work with Social Development Minister to introduce further mitigation measures than those already proposed. There must be some form of transition support and flexibility to support people as we move out of a period of conflict and the Secretary of State needs to raise this with her counterpart in the Department of Work and Pensions.
“I am alarmed at much of the rhetoric that Conservatives have employed on this matter and believe this will only further marginalise people. Instead the government should be working to create growth in the economy that will provide job opportunities for people. It is disingenuous to castigate people for being out of work at a time when job opportunities are so scarce, especially for young people.
“I will continue to press the government on these matters today when I speak in the debate on universal credit.”
Update: 7 March 2013
Ritchie Warns of Universal Credit Dangers
South Down MP Margaret Ritchie has spoken out at Westminster on the plans to introduce universal credit in Northern Ireland.
Speaking following yesterday’s debate Ms Ritchie said: “The SDLP have opposed the UK government’s plan to introduce universal credit at every step. Unlike other parties our voting record is clear and unambiguous, whether in Westminster or in the Assembly. We recognise the need for a simpler, more accessible benefits system but these reforms are an attack on the most vulnerable. They come from a cuts agenda, not from a real desire to lift people out of poverty and protect those who need it most.
“Much of the tone of the debate around welfare reform is deeply regretful and represents a thinly veiled attempt to ostracise and castigate the very people we should be supporting and helping in these difficult economic times. This is a simple act of misdirection from a UK government that has delivered low growth and high unemployment, especially amongst our young people.
“During the parliamentary debate on Universal Credit I pointed out that it must be recognised that we are society still bearing the psychological and physical scars of decade of conflict. While I welcome the mitigation measures that have been introduced thus far, the UK government must work with the Social Development Minister to ensure that our most vulnerable people are protected from the worst aspects of this proposal.
“There also remain many doubts about the delivery of this system and recent experience of the Workplace Capability Assessment suggests we should be wary of government claims in assessing the effectiveness and cost of such changes to the welfare system. Specifically there are concerns that the computer system necessary to administer Universal Credit will be further delayed and unable to meet the real time processing requirement necessary.
“Added to this Universal Credit is to be digital self-service by default. This may sound very good but the most vulnerable in society and particularly the elderly are less likely to have access to computers or be as proficient with newer technology. What is meant to widen access may restrict it. This is particularly problematic in rural areas such as my own constituency where broadband coverage is not comprehensive.
“I fear we are going to be left with a system that is unfair, costly and will leave our most vulnerable people even more isolated.”
McCausland Recognizes Role of Advice Sector in Coming Welfare Reforms
Speaking after a private member’s motion on access, provision and funding for independent advice services, DUP MLA Minister McCausland said: “The advice sector plays a vital role in supporting people through the changes arising from the welfare reforms, and I fully recognise the challenges this period of substantial change will bring for the advice sector here in Northern Ireland.
“The significant and complex changes we are embarking on as a result of the reforms are likely to impact on most parts of our society and it is imperative that we protect the most vulnerable. I want to work with advice sector organisations and harness their excellent resource and expertise to mitigate the worst aspects of the planned changes and deliver the best possible outcome for the people of Northern Ireland.”
The Department for Social Development commits £4.5million each year for advice services and works closely with the advice sector to monitor the take up of advice services and the impact of welfare reform.
The Minister continued: “My Department has already devised and introduced a strategy for advice services here in Northern Ireland. This strategy, known as Opening Doors, is geared to help support an integrated, quality advice service across Northern Ireland. It ensures that advice services are planned and delivered in a way which matches resources to need – focusing in particular on meeting the needs of the most disadvantaged.
“My Department is also committed to promoting benefit uptake, and in the past year alone, our “Benefit Take-up” campaign has encouraged 4000 mainly older people to claim additional support of £13.1million, through an awareness campaign and partnership working with the Voluntary and Community Sector.”