Northern Ireland’s Welfare Reform Bill was due to be published before Assembly recess earlier this month. Ultonia Communications’ Ian James Parsley asks where it has gone.
One of the peculiarities of devolution is that it operates subtly differently – both in theory and in practice – in different jurisdictions. One area where this is most obvious is social security, and thus Welfare Reform.
In the UK social security is, in theory, devolved only to Northern Ireland. However, a long-standing principle of “parity” – aimed at guaranteeing the same level of social security and welfare support to all citizens regardless of where in the UK they live – means that any shortfall in funding for social security in NI will be met by the UK Treasury provided NI retains roughly the same social security system. Precisely what this means, however, is open to debate.
Already there are areas of welfare provision which are done slightly differently in NI, usually due to different systems elsewhere – for example, as NI retains rates where the rest of the UK has moved to Council Tax, housing support is necessarily different. In NI, the system is also administered slightly differently, run as it is by the Department of Social Development (DSD) in Belfast rather than the Department of Work and Pensions in London. Although in practice DSD uses many of the same systems (IT, management etc), in some areas practice and outcome are subtly different (for example, DSD has in fact been significantly more successful in tackling fraud).
Welfare Reform would necessarily involve some differences in NI, where areas such as childcare provision and government-sponsored training are markedly different – thus, some of the assumptions behind welfare reform in Great Britain do not necessarily apply to NI. There is a legitimate debate about whether this requires NI to come more into line in areas such as childcare and training, or whether it provides reasonable grounds for a difference in welfare reform policy (still falling within the spirit of ‘parity’ on the grounds it ultimately seeks the same outcome).
For all that, Great Britain’s Welfare Reform Bill achieved Royal Assent on 7 March. “Parity” dictates that roughly the same reforms are necessary in NI, and thus that roughly the same legislation is necessary, and according to all Assembly scrutiny on the subject (most notably in the Social Development Committee), this was due at least to have been published by the end of June. Why wasn’t it?
Ultonia Communications makes great play of understanding not just the structures but also the culture of the devolved institutions, and therein lies the answer. Ultimately the NI Executive is driven by two parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – and things only happen once they agree. However, as one correspondent puts it: “There is no ‘bank of goodwill’ between the parties“. In other words, decisions can only be made which may be seen to favour on party’s position at the same time as a decision favouring the other party’s position – regardless of the issues involved or even whether they are remotely consequential. Hence, earlier this month, we saw decisions announced on the Maze Regeneration and the Victims’ Commissioner at the same time, with the rest (including welfare reform) relegated to a sideshow – or, specifically, to a trade-off at a later date.
This “culture” does not just impact on NI’s Welfare Reform Bill (which cannot be delayed too long otherwise NI will be left with a huge tab to pick up, likely running into billions, for social security). It will also surely come to impact implementation by the Health Minister of Transforming Your Care, implementation by the Education Minister of the two Education Bills (and broader reforms), and a whole host of other policies. Welfare Reform has been delayed by the lack of a “Bank of Goodwill” – and, in public affairs, it is always worth having contingencies in case the same happens in other areas.