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Welfare Reform

Volume 547: debated on Wednesday 4 July 2012

The reforms that we have introduced give us a rare opportunity to transform our welfare system into one that is fair to all, looks after the most vulnerable in society, and above all, always rewards work.

In view of recent criticisms of the Work programme and the Prime Minister’s view that housing benefit for the under-25s should be discontinued, can the right hon. Gentleman tell us what the Government’s policy is for youngsters? Is it to create jobs or simply to tolerate their exploitation?

I think the right hon. Gentleman underestimates the fact that the issue is devolved, and we are working closely with the devolved Minister with responsibility in this area and other Ministers in the Executive on the arrangements which will be debated shortly as the Bill is taken through the Assembly. It is very important that local circumstances are taken into account so that the Bill that emerges from the Assembly suits the circumstances in Northern Ireland.

I am in regular contact with Nelson McCausland, the relevant Minister, and he is optimistic that he will stick to the schedule, which will enable Northern Ireland to come on stream, as planned, with the Department for Work and Pensions here.

Many people in Northern Ireland view changes caused by welfare reform with increasing concern. Northern Ireland has had 30 years of a terrorist campaign. That has led to many people suffering disability, both physical and mental; 15,000 people in Northern Ireland are on incapacity benefit and employment and support allowance, and 180,000 people are on disability living allowance. Can the Secretary of State assure us that every step will be taken to ensure that the unique position of Northern Ireland is taken into account when it comes to the benefits system?

Nobody underestimates the terrible damage the troubles did to people physically and mentally, but it is worth reflecting on the fact that high rates of DLA are not unique to Northern Ireland; Merthyr Tydfil has a rate of 13%, which is very similar to that of Belfast. What I think is important is that for the first time each person will be treated as an individual, his circumstances will be taken into account and rehabilitation, re-education and training will be offered. That has not come about before.

Given that many benefit claimants in Northern Ireland have their payments paid directly into Ulster bank and, because of the ongoing debacle caused by the IT problems, have therefore been unable to access their only source of income and their own money, what assurance can the Secretary of State give that he has had robust discussions with RBS, his colleagues in the Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions, and the Northern Ireland Executive, to find a long-term solution to this agonising problem for many people, which has heaped on them misery upon misery?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the very real problems that people both in and out of work are suffering due to the IT breakdown. I raised the matter with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills yesterday. Sir Philip Hampton, the chairman of RBS, was in Northern Ireland on Monday and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State talked with him yesterday and is keeping in close touch. Ultimately, this is a problem for RBS to resolve internally, through Ulster bank, by getting the computer technology right, but the hon. Lady is right to raise the matter. This is causing horrendous problems not just for benefit claimants, but for those in regular employment.