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Welfare Reform

Volume 573: debated on Wednesday 15 January 2014

3. What assessment she has made of the potential effect in Northern Ireland of the Government’s proposed further reductions in welfare expenditure. (901920)

7. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the Government's welfare reform policies on Northern Ireland. (901924)

We have worked hard with the Executive to adapt our reforms flexibly to the circumstances of Northern Ireland. These reforms will ensure that work always pays and will help to lift people out of poverty by moving them into work. When fully implemented, universal credit will make around 3 million low-to-middle-income households across the UK better off.

The number of people living in poverty in Northern Ireland has increased from 18% in 2002 to 22% in 2013. In reality, that means that one in four people in Ulster earns and lives on a salary that falls below the basic standard of living. Will the Minister take the opportunity to give us an assurance that the cuts—the deeper and further cuts—talked about by the Chancellor of the Exchequer will not force more people into poverty in Northern Ireland?

I am not in a position to know what further cuts to the welfare budget the Chancellor may be planning. Northern Ireland receives more than a quarter more in Government spending per head in comparison with constituencies such as mine in England and, indeed, all English constituencies. It is a fact that Nelson McCausland specifically said that more people will be lifted out of poverty by universal credit, including some 10,000 children. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. We are not immune to understanding people’s concerns, but we believe that it is work, not welfare, that will bring prosperity to Northern Ireland.

But does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) that Northern Ireland is “getting the best deal” on welfare when changes could potentially take £450 million per annum out of vulnerable people’s pockets?

I do not recognise the figures that the hon. Lady has quoted. What we wish to see is people in work. Unfortunately, the last Government left this country with the most appalling financial and economic catastrophe. All that the hon. Lady, her Front-Bench team and the Leader of the Opposition can suggest is more spending, more borrowing, more taxes and more debt, which will plunge us back into the disaster they left behind.

The Chancellor has indicated that he is considering a new regime for annually managed expenditure, with an overall cap on welfare spending. Does the Minister believe that that will entail a cap within a cap for Northern Ireland’s welfare spending, and what discussions is the Northern Ireland Office having with the Treasury and the devolved Administration about the serious implications of such a development?

Officials are always discussing things with the Treasury, Indeed, an excellent young man who works for us has just come from the Treasury to increase liaison.

Northern Ireland cannot be exempt from that which is affecting the rest of the United Kingdom. The Belfast Telegraph has said that the Northern Irish cannot pretend that they can

“have it both ways; that we can continue to benefit from the Treasury—we get back more than we raise in taxes—while people in other parts of the UK suffer from the reforms… we cannot expect that situation to continue indefinitely.”

I think that the hon. Gentleman, who is a serious and grown-up politician, will realise that as well.

I am relieved, as the whole House will be, that a “young man” is currently striving to bring light to this area. We wish him well.

In May 2010 the Conservative party in Northern Ireland, then sailing under the flag of the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists—New Force, or UCUNF, was comprehensively rejected by the voters. In the light of that, how can the Minister justify the continuing distress caused by the rolling threat of the imposition of a £5 million fine on the Northern Ireland Executive, and will he tell us when, this month, the sanction will commence?

If the hon. Gentleman wants to go back to May 2010, I think he might note that the good people of England comprehensively rejected the Labour party and all its works at that time, which I think was pretty sensible of them.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are looking after the interests of everyone in the United Kingdom. For instance, 1.6 million private sector jobs have been created since 2010, including jobs in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.] As has been explained to the Northern Ireland Executive, the sanction on welfare has not yet been imposed because the Treasury cannot impose it unilaterally. But might I say that the First Minister—