Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland MPs express benefits concern

Commons chamber and Lords chamber
Image caption The welfare bill is likely to pass between the Commons and the Lords in coming weeks

MPs from Northern Ireland have expressed concerns over changes to the welfare system.

Their criticism comes as the House of Commons has been debating controversial reforms including the introduction of a benefit cap.

During the debate MPs overturned a series of defeats inflicted on the Welfare Reform Bill when it was raised in the House of Lords.

Seven amendments were backed by peers over the past week but the government has pledged to overturn them.

MPs have voted down Lords changes to reduce entitlements to employment and support allowance.

They also voted by 324 to 265 to back the government over plans to stop young disabled people who have never worked from being able to claim a "contributory" allowance.

Prime Minister David Cameron said the plans for a benefits cap were "right and fair".

He told the Commons "it is right to say you should not get more than £26,000 in benefit".

Labour have said they support a benefit cap in principle but will not say what it should be.

They insist that there should be a regional cap across the country to reflect different benefit rates.

Labour MP Vernon Coaker, who is his party's spokesman on Northern Ireland, said he supported reform but had concerns about how the government's changes would impact on people "whose only problem is that they are poor".

'Back to the drawing board'

His criticism is shared by the SDLP South Down MP Margaret Ritchie.

She told the BBC that the government reforms were wrong and they should "go back to the drawing board".

During Prime Minister's Questions, she told David Cameron that the coalition's plans would hit low and middle income families.

The DUP accept that welfare reform is necessary. North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds said parts of the bill meet with their approval - but they still have concerns about other changes.

He told the BBC: "It is fair and reasonable in our view to have a cap on welfare payments."

However, the DUP deputy leader said that he did not think it was fair and reasonable to penalise cancer patients, the disabled or children.

He also criticised the lack of the time being given to discuss the changes.

Mr Dodds' comments over a benefit cap were criticised by Sinn Fein.

Party spokesperson on benefit reform, Mickey Brady said: "The DUP would be better fighting to protect and enhance those who are most vulnerable in our society, and not backing the right wing Tory ideology that is forcing draconian cuts across this society."

'Sold as being popular'

East Belfast MP Naomi Long said she had serious concerns about some of the welfare reforms.

The Alliance MP said the moves were populist and "sold as being popular" but she argued they would impact on many people.

She is worried that the "balance has shifted too far in the direction on cuts and not enough focus on getting welfare reform right".

Once legislation is passed at Westminster the assembly would then introduce its own Welfare Reform Bill bringing in the same changes as the rest of the UK.

Speaking on Wednesday the Secretary of State Owen Paterson said he looked forward to seeing that legislation at Stormont.

He said there is "a pressing need to reform the welfare system" and tackle the problems of poverty and dependency on welfare by "ensuring that work pays and is seen to pay".

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