The choreography two weeks ago was clear – Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland noted that agreement had been reached on most aspects of Welfare Reform in Northern Ireland; Committee Chair Alex Maskey chimed in with similar sentiments. Since these represent the two largest parties in the Assembly, it looked like a Bill was imminent. Yet the Bill has still not been introduced.
There are two main areas where Northern Ireland is seeking differentiation from Great Britain. The difficulty is, it must pay for this differentiation from its own budget. The first is the “Bedroom Tax” (actually the “new under-occupancy rules” which include a withholding of benefit for houses with unoccupied room); and the second is fortnightly payments (i.e. paying the new Universal Credit every two weeks or twice monthly, as opposed to once monthly as proposed in Great Britain).
All five parties in fact seem politically united that these are both worthwhile differentiations, even at a combined cost of around 42 million each year. It would appear, however, that when Ministers were asked to find that money collectively, some were unwilling. Thus the source of the 42 million is not obvious.
Order papers now exist to the end of May with no sign of the Bill, despite the fact it has nominally cleared Committee. We live in frustrating times!