Local MLA at loggerheads over Welfare Reform Bill

November 27, 2012

By Christine Keighery

It would seem the controversial Welfare Reform Bill has our local political representatives at loggerheads over how to deal with the bill through the political process.

Last week saw the local SDLP party criticise what it described as Sinn Féin’s “inaction” on the bill and further accused them of bringing a motion on welfare reform to the Council, in an attempt to “mask their inaction on the topic and their need to catch up with the SDLP’s consistent work opposing the savage cuts being brought in.”

An SDLP spokesperson claimed that his party have “consistently and vociferously stated in Westminster and in the Assembly – we do not accept the Welfare Bill which, as it stands, is a shameful attack on the vulnerable in our society.

“These Tory cuts, as proposed, will disproportionately impact on women, children and the disabled in Newry and Mourne and right across the North.

The spokesperson revealed that back in February this year, the SDLP in the Assembly called for a Special Committee to be set up in the Assembly to rigorously scrutinize the Welfare Reform Bill, but that other parties voted this down.

Furthermore, he says,

“We prepared a petition of concern to bring the Bill down and allow space for redrafting in the interests of those worst off.  Sadly, no other party felt as strongly as we do about the protection of those who will be most adversely affected by the cuts and the petition could not be registered.

“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 weak words of activity to hide the reality of complete inactivity by Sinn Féin on this crucial issue.”

Sinn Féin’s Mickey Brady hit back at the accusations, claiming there had been a lot of “misinformation” about how to deal with the issue of Tory cuts through the Welfare Reform Bill.

“Some would make you believe that supporting a motion of concern at the Assembly will see the Welfare Reform Bill fall and we can all happily continue as we are.

“Unfortunately this is not the case, as the Assembly does not have financial autonomy and the Tory Government is determined to impose these cuts upon the most vulnerable.  If we were to sign a motion of concern at this stage it would only give the Tory Government a carte blanche to impose their cuts without opposition or scrutiny of the Bill.

“Sinn Féin have rightly argued that the best approach is to scrutinise the bill for the most damaging elements that will impact people on benefits.”

Mr Brady continued that his party had put forward many arguments against various mechanisms within the Bill, such as the so-called “bedroom tax”, or the payment of family benefits to just one person. He claims they have argued against the changes to the scheduling of benefit payments and have railed against medical reviews for disabled people.

“There are many more examples in which Sinn Féin will challenge the mechanisms within the Bill through the scrutiny of the Social Development Committee” he said,

“We have begun that scrutiny and I can promise people that we will go through it line by line until we identify and challenge every attempt to penalise the most marginal in our society.

“This week alone, we succeeded in getting the Committee to agree to bring before the Assembly a motion that will create an ad-hoc committee in order to proof the Human Rights and Equality legislation against the Bill.

“We have already got DSD Minister Nelson McCausland to have changes added to the Bill, although the Unionists voted in favour of pushing the Bill through unopposed.”

The Sinn Féin Welfare spokesperson remains adamant that such changes would not have happened if the party had signed the Motion of Concern being pushed by the SDLP “or if the Bill had been fast tracked, which was what Margaret Ritchie proposed as DSD Minister.”

“Not only will Sinn Féin be working in the Assembly to oppose the Bill in its current form, but we will also be using our MP’s to hold meetings with the British Government and directly with Welfare Reform architect, David Freud MP, to highlight the unique situation in the North.”

Mr Brady reiterated that the Welfare Reform Bill “needs to be opposed by everyone, whether on benefit or not” and said that “the policy of other parties of burying their heads in the sand and hoping that it will go away, will only lead to more hardship being imposed upon our communities.”