Northern Ireland

Details emerge of planned Northern Ireland welfare changes

Stormont
Image caption MLAs will debate the welfare reform bill next week

More details have emerged about planned changes to Northern Ireland's welfare and benefits system.

The moves are all part of a welfare reform deal reached between the DUP and Sinn Féin before Christmas.

Under plans contained in the Stormont House Agreement there would be a fund to top up benefits of people losing out under reforms agreed at Westminster.

There are also plans to establish a local commissioner who would oversee the additional payments.

Next week welfare reform - the issue that nearly brought the institutions down - will top the agenda in Northern Ireland.

The crisis was averted when Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed a welfare deal.

Seventy-eight amendments have been tabled to the Welfare Reform Bill and they include the establishment of a discretionary support scheme that would help those who would lose benefits under Westminster welfare reforms.

The amendment states this is "not to be regarded as a social security benefit "

This would be overseen by a discretionary support commissioner and a series of inspectors.

Concerns remain

There are concerns that even with these new measures in place those on benefit will still be disadvantaged.

Kevin Higgins, of Advice NI, said: "We still have concerns around impact on people, people with disabilities whose benefits may be changed as a result of reassessment and time-limiting and also the introduction of the size criteria."

In the budget agreed by Sinn Féin and the DUP, £70m was put aside to off-set the impact of welfare reform.

Some insist that Sinn Féin 's original opposition to the reforms was based on rhetoric.

"Why could this not have been sorted out two years ago?" Ulster Unionist MLA Roy Beggs asked.

"Why did they have to block everything. It's interesting that they have not placed any amendments themselves other than have been agreed by the executive parties in discussions that occurred.

"It's surprising that they appeared to roll over at the last moment."

'Trite soundbites'

However, Sinn Féin's Alex Maskey said: "This is a party who stood in unity with the Tories and on a manifesto which has delivered cuts to public services and an ideological assault on the welfare state.

"Sinn Féin led the opposition to this assault and protected the most vulnerable. Now the UUP claims it is protecting people from its own policies. This is ludicrous.

"This clearly indicates that the UUP is the party of gimmicks, trite soundbites with no principles and less substance."

MLAs are to debate the welfare reform bill next Tuesday.

Amendments have also been tabled by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and the Green Party.

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