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Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 3 December 2015

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Order laid before the House on 26 November be approved.

Relevant documents: 16th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, 11th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments

My Lords, the order will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland, at the request of their Executive, can benefit from the welfare reforms enabled by the Welfare Reform Act 2012 in Great Britain.

The UK Government have no intention or desire to legislate on an ongoing basis for welfare in Northern Ireland. Welfare is devolved to Northern Ireland and will remain so. The enabling Act time-limits the Government’s power to legislate so that an order cannot be made after 31 December 2016.

The legislative approach we are taking has arisen at the request of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly has granted its consent. The content of the Order in Council broadly corresponds to the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, which was debated at length and in great detail in this House. It introduced a number of changes to ensure that work pays, that the most vulnerable in society continue to receive the support they need, and that taxpayers’ hard-earned money is spent responsibly. These principles underpin the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and are the same principles that underpin the Order in Council before the House today.

The Order in Council is based largely on the Assembly’s Welfare Reform Bill that fell at its final stage in May of this year. It includes the reforms made in Great Britain by the Welfare Reform Act 2012; the various flexibilities agreed between the Northern Ireland Department for Social Development and the Department for Work and Pensions; the amendments agreed during the passage of the Assembly Welfare Reform Bill; and provisions that allow for Northern Ireland Executive-funded top-ups.

This order is a fundamental part of the agreement reached last month. As part of that agreement, the Government are committed to delivering welfare reform in Northern Ireland. We would, of course, have preferred not to take this approach. I assure noble Lords that the Government are taking only the action necessary to ensure that welfare reform is no longer an issue undermining the political process in Northern Ireland. We believe that this is the only way to resolve the welfare reform impasse in Northern Ireland.

As I have said, welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. However, it has in principle maintained parity with Great Britain, meaning that benefit claimants have been able to avail themselves of the same rates of benefit as those in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, as a result of the failure to implement welfare reform, the system in Northern Ireland is becoming increasingly different from that operating in the rest of the United Kingdom. This difference is not sustainable and will cause particular problems in the delivery of people’s benefits. Once Great Britain moves entirely to the new system based around universal credit, Northern Ireland will need to create and maintain its own, separate system and meet the significant costs of the IT needed to support it.

The order means that Northern Ireland’s welfare system will be placed back on track. A legacy welfare system that makes people dependent on benefits is no more sustainable in Northern Ireland than it was in Great Britain. The order will provide real benefits to people in Northern Ireland by helping to tackle worklessness and delivering real economic benefits.

The order provides the legislative framework to implement these reforms in Northern Ireland, including: replacing DLA with the PIP, which helps towards additional living costs caused by a long-term health condition or disability and is based on how a person’s condition affects them, not on the condition they have; reforming contributory benefits so that they align with universal credit conditionality, including introducing a claimant commitment as a condition of entitlement; time-limiting ESA to underline the principle that, with the right support, claimants are expected to return to work; introducing tougher penalties for benefit fraud; and bringing in a benefit cap to ensure that those on benefits face the same choices as people in work. It reflects the agreements with the Northern Ireland Executive to make provision for agreed Northern Ireland-specific welfare-related administrative flexibilities and top-ups.

It is important to remember why the order is necessary. It is not intended to diminish Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement. The legislative approach that we are taking has arisen at the request of the Northern Ireland parties, and the Assembly has given its consent. The order reflects the draft Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill, which has been debated at great length in the Assembly over the past three years. Accordingly, the order includes a number of amendments that reflect the will of the Assembly, including an 18-month limit for higher-level sanctions and discretionary payments.

The order is about delivering the fresh start agreement. It is about supporting hard work and aspiration, and creating the right incentives for people to fulfil their potential and create a safe, secure and self-sufficient life, supported by, but independent from, the state. It is about making sure that spending on welfare is sustainable and fair to the taxpayer, while at the same time protecting the most vulnerable. Building an economy based on higher pay, lower taxes and lower welfare is right for the UK and right for Northern Ireland. I commend the order to the House.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for outlining the order to the House and for his brevity. Before we get to the order, it is important to be mindful of the events that have led up to this point and the context of this debate.

It is now almost a year since the Stormont House agreement was finalised. Those negotiations made substantial progress on some of the most contentious issues, including flags and parades, while also seeking a way forward on matters such as welfare reform and the devolution of corporation tax. The agreement marked a turning point but, as your Lordships will be all too aware, during the last year, particularly in the past 12 weeks, it appeared that there was a genuine risk not just that the devolution settlement might collapse but that we might see a return to direct rule for the first time in almost a decade. It is to the Government’s credit that they have worked hard to come up with this agreement and, in doing so, they have our full support in bringing it forward.

The Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act 2015, which received Royal Assent this week, together with this order which the Act enabled, takes an important step towards bringing the events of the last 12 months to a close. I am sure no one will see this order as a perfect solution, but most will nevertheless regard it as necessary, as it paves the way for an end to financial penalties and a return to stable government.

The House knows that we disagree with much of the Conservative Government’s welfare reform programme, and we have not held back from expressing that. However, we have also been consistent in our view that these debates are not the right forum for rehearsing the arguments we have made, and will continue to make, elsewhere. The Opposition will not, therefore, oppose the order today, just as we did not vote against the enabling Bill, which became law last week.

We hope that, in bringing recent disagreements over welfare reform in Northern Ireland to a close, this legislation will mark the beginning of a new chapter in its history and lay the foundations for progress on long-stalled issues. We particularly welcome the provisions made for transitional protections to help mitigate the impact of the changes. These include important protections for existing claimants affected by the bedroom tax and the transition from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. There has also been an agreement on the way that universal credit will be implemented in Northern Ireland, which includes exemptions from the requirement for single household payments, provisions to allow the housing costs element to be paid directly to landlords and protections in the sanctions regime for lone parents seeking work. These are all welcome compromises on the part of the Department for Work and Pensions. Although they may not address all the concerns that have been raised about welfare reform in Northern Ireland, they will go some way towards mitigating the impact on some of the most vulnerable among those affected.

Importantly, this agreement will also make available additional funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to step up its efforts to fight terrorism, and new funding for community initiatives, among them efforts to bring down the peace walls that have historically divided Northern Ireland’s communities.

The compromises reached by all those involved helped to get the exceptional circumstances of Northern Ireland recognised, and the settlement agreed between Stormont and Westminster presents an opportunity not only to draw a line under the difficult events of recent months but to look to the future as we continue to support the building of a peaceful, as well as prosperous and fair, Northern Ireland. We welcome the order.

My Lords, I briefly echo the comments of the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy. In some respects, of course, this is an imperfect way of dealing with these very important changes. But the key point is that it is a way of dealing with them. They will now be able to be implemented in a way that is impossible to see via any other route. They do, as the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, said, unlock other important developments in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we on these Benches welcome the order.

I thank both noble Lords for the way they have approached this as something that we need to do to help the process in Northern Ireland and allow that country to function.

It is worth picking up just a handful of points before I close. The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, indicated, I think, that he did not necessarily approve of some of the Government’s welfare measures. However, let me explain how the current Welfare Reform and Work Bill will work in the Northern Ireland context. As part of the fresh start agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive recognised the importance of addressing welfare reform more broadly and not just the 2012 measures. The legislative consent Motion passed by the Assembly made this clear. So if required, we will introduce a further order to implement the relevant provisions of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill for the same reasons that we are introducing the order currently before the House: to provide Northern Ireland with a fit-for-purpose welfare system that takes parity as its starting point.

The noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, mentioned the transitional provisions of the order, which allow the Secretary of State to exercise the vast majority of regulation-making powers in the first instance. In effect, this means that the Secretary of State has the power to introduce regulations until that power is handed back to Northern Ireland.

On the noble Lord’s point about some of the changes, the Northern Ireland Bill included a number of specific amendments which were agreed to help ensure that the reforms could be implemented. The Government remain convinced that the proposals introduced in Great Britain remain right for Great Britain. In Northern Ireland, we have agreed administrative flexibilities to allow payments to be made more frequently and for the rent element to be paid directly to landlords. This recognises the devolved nature of welfare and the ability for there to be different administrative arrangements in Northern Ireland. It will be up to the Northern Ireland Executive to work out their exact administrative procedures. The universal credit system in Great Britain also allows for us to make these alternative payment arrangements, which will be used where appropriate.

I emphasise again that this order fulfils a vital commitment made as part of the fresh start agreement and it has the support of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It does not diminish the devolution settlement but supports the future of devolution in Northern Ireland and paves the way for the introduction there of a modern, reformed welfare system. I commend the order to the House.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 6.07 pm.