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Welfare Mitigation Payments

Volume 667: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2019

7. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to maintain welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland after March 2020. (900149)

8. If he will bring forward legislative proposals to maintain welfare mitigation payments in Northern Ireland after March 2020. (900151)

The mitigations in place were agreed by the previous Northern Ireland Executive and are sunsetted in March 2020. Ministers here in Westminster do not have the power to instruct the Northern Ireland civil service to take action or to direct spending in relation to devolved matters. Any extension of those mitigations will be a matter for the Northern Ireland civil service and restored Executive Ministers.

I am—[Interruption.] I am sure that the people of Selly Oak would like the welcome that the Prime Minister just received.

In view of the importance of this issue, will the Minister consider amending the Bill, because it is clear that if the people of Northern Ireland face this welfare cliff edge, there will be major problems from March next year?

This is an incredibly serious issue. Thousands of people in Northern Ireland benefit from these mitigations, and there is a sunset provision for the end of March 2020. The hon. Gentleman will know that alternative mechanisms are available to the devolved Administration to extend the mitigations, but that is not ideal. The best way would be to change the legal framework, which is best done in Northern Ireland by a Northern Ireland Executive, and the day when it is restored cannot come too soon.

Does the Minister agree that many families in Northern Ireland are particularly affected by the Government’s policy to cap benefits for families with more than two children? When he next sees the Prime Minister, will he ask for the lifting of the cap, which affects poor children throughout the whole United Kingdom, to be part of his election manifesto?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point, and the Prime Minister has heard it directly.

It is not for me to revisit the bowels of welfare policy, but the right hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee on Work and Pensions has raised a serious point about extending the mitigations. That is for the devolved Administration and would be an urgent requirement for a restored Executive.

The introduction of universal credit has had a devastating impact in my constituency, but women in Northern Ireland who wish to access an exemption to the two-child limit, known as the rape clause, may still be subject to criminal prosecution for not reporting under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, as confirmed by the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State commit to lifting the two-child limit that places families into further hardship?

That is an extremely important and sensitive issue. The hon. Lady will know that, in practice, there have been no prosecutions under section 5 of the 1967 Act in the past 50 years. She will also know about the guidance from the Attorney General and from the outgoing DPP, particularly on the status of public interest. I come back to the same old riff: any change in the law is for a devolved Executive and a devolved Administration. This is a serious issue, so it is about time elected politicians in Northern Ireland stepped up to their responsibility.

When giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirmed that Northern Irish businesses will have better access to the EU single market than Scottish businesses. Shamefully, this Government will not publish an economic assessment of the Prime Minister’s deal, but we know from independent research that it will hit Scotland hard. Will the Minister therefore ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who is sitting next to him, whether Scotland’s man in the Cabinet demanded that Scotland’s businesses be given the same access to the single market and customs union as Northern Irish business, or did he sit there meekly, abandoning them to their fate?

The Government have published an impact assessment in relation to the proposed withdrawal agreement, and we have rehearsed the arguments about the arrangements in Northern Ireland. These are Northern Ireland questions, and I am sure that the Secretary of State has heard the hon. Gentleman’s comments.