1. What recent discussions he has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on welfare reform. (106609)
I regularly discuss the benefits of our reform agenda with Executive Ministers and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I spoke yesterday to the Minister for Social Development, who will shortly introduce a welfare reform Bill to the Assembly. Lord Freud, the Minister responsible for welfare reform, will visit Northern Ireland again tomorrow and Friday to continue the discussions.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would be very damaging to Northern Ireland if parity were broken, because these reforms will bring tremendous benefit to many of the most disadvantaged people in Northern Ireland. At the same time, this very much has to be a Northern Ireland Bill. I am working very closely with the local Minister, to whom I spoke yesterday, to ensure that there is sufficient flexibility so that when the measure comes to the Assembly, it conforms to the needs of local communities.
I say to the Secretary of State, SUFTUM, and I am sure he will on Saturday.
Will the Secretary of State assure us that the welfare reform flexibilities that our Northern Ireland Minister is seeking will be accommodated at a policy level, but also at a practical level within the universal credit IT system? It will be vital to have those flexibilities in place next year.
For those who are not enlightened, “SUFTUM” is “Stand up for the Ulster men”. We all heartily congratulate the team on having got to where they will be on Saturday, and we wish them all the best.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to stress that flexibility means that the detailed welfare reform measures must be adapted to the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. The most obvious one is that there is no council tax in Northern Ireland. I am working closely with the local Minister, and Lord Freud, who has been a frequent visitor and will be in Northern Ireland for two days at the end of the week.
Is the Secretary of State aware that conservative estimates indicate that when welfare reform is implemented in Northern Ireland, it will remove about half a billion pounds from the pockets and purses of low-income households? Apart from the social consequences, will he give his assessment of the macro-economic effects of that significant cash withdrawal from the Northern Ireland economy?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question, but I have to remind her that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, does not agree with her. He has said:
“The claim that welfare spend will fall in Northern Ireland and will lose £500 million is clearly not true. All that will happen is that welfare spending will still be increasing but at a slower rate than if no reform agenda is pursued.”