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Welfare Reforms

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

2. What discussions she has had with Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive on the Government’s proposed welfare reforms. (145438)

4. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the Government’s welfare reforms in Northern Ireland. (145440)

Earlier this morning, I discussed these matters with the First and Deputy First Ministers at the Joint Ministerial Committee. I am sure that the whole House would say that a simpler benefit system will reward those in work and the vulnerable in our society.

On 27 February, the Minister responsible for social development in Northern Ireland, Mr Nelson McCausland MLA, said:

“I have said many times already that I have concerns about the potential impact of Welfare Reform on local people. I will continue to work with Ministers in Westminster to mitigate against the most negative impacts of these reforms.”

Will the Minister tell us what he thinks the “negative impacts” of welfare reform in Northern Ireland are and what progress he has made in helping the Minister in Northern Ireland to address them?

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) has been to Northern Ireland on many occasions and is working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the particular Minister with whom I have also worked. The measures are going to be difficult, but we face the situation that work needs to pay and that under the present system it does not. In Northern Ireland, of all the areas of the United Kingdom, welfare desperately needs reform.

One effect of the welfare reform changes in Northern Ireland is that, on the most recent figures, 98,000 children in Northern Ireland are now living in poverty. Indeed, the Belfast West constituency is the second highest in the whole of the UK in that respect. Following the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane), will the Minister explain exactly what he is doing about that particular aspect, which does not necessarily have anything to do with people being in or out of work, but is having a distinctly negative impact on many Northern Ireland households?

Child poverty was discussed this morning at the Joint Ministerial Committee, and it has been an aspiration for all of us, over many years, to get rid of it. The situation in Northern Ireland, however, is that too many people and families are completely reliant on welfare, and that unless we reform the system it will not be possible for them to get off benefits and into work, which must be the aspiration for all of us.

I join the Secretary of State and the Minister in praising the bravery and success of the police in preventing a terrorist attack in Londonderry on Sunday night. As the right hon. Lady said, those who seek to destroy peace and progress will not succeed, but we have to remain vigilant to the threat they pose. On welfare reform, will the Minister tell me how many people in Northern Ireland will be adversely affected by the bedroom tax?

That is obviously a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but we all want to make sure that the people who come to see us at our surgeries on a regular basis who are inappropriately housed or cannot be housed can be put in social housing if they need it. In Northern Ireland, between 2010 and 2012, the budget went up by 10.7%, with more than £500 million spent on housing benefit. We have to do something about that, while mitigating the effects on those in need.

The “not me, guv” attitude will not work. According to the Chartered Institute of Housing, 66% of working age social tenants in Northern Ireland will be affected, and 32,000 people will lose out as a result of the bedroom tax. The Government have given no consideration to the specific issues to do with housing in Northern Ireland—from the type and scale of stock to the segregation in and between communities—so will the Minister urgently meet the Northern Ireland Executive and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the disastrous consequences of this policy?

Well, that is the Labour party’s position. What we want to do is get people into housing that will be beneficial for them. Every week families come to the surgeries of Members throughout the House, and throughout the United Kingdom, and say to us, “I do not want to sleep on the floor any more, and I do not want my kids to sleep on settees.” How can we help them when others are living in one and two-bedroom properties although they do not need that excess capacity? What is the Labour party going to do about that? I expected the shadow Minister to ask about the very difficult security situation in Northern Ireland, but he has not done so today.

Is the Minister aware that there will be a £10 million a year deficit in housing benefit following the implementation of the bedroom tax, which will leave families in the Province in dire straits? Will he review the changes in the Northern Ireland block grant so that smaller homes and apartments can be built?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who is a friend of mine, has adopted the Labour party “tax” mantra. This is not a tax. What we are trying to do is make the position fairer for all our constituents. It is true that capacity is an issue in Northern Ireland; the problem is that there are too many people in the wrong sort of housing, and we need to help them to get into the right sort.

Is the Minister aware that Northern Ireland has one of the highest levels of dependence on benefits in the United Kingdom, that a high proportion of its population have mental and physical disabilities, and that its provision for affordable child care is the lowest in the UK? Will he assist the efforts of the Minister in the devolved Department for Social Development—along with the Department for Work and Pensions—to secure mitigation measures other than those that have already been announced in relation to welfare reform in Northern Ireland?

Of course I will continue to work closely with the Minister in the devolved Administration. However, the best way in which to help those who are receiving welfare benefits is to get them off benefits and into work as soon as possible.