Just when it seemed the Stormont House Agreement was sailing along nicely, a short strip of tarmac in North Belfast excepted, welfare reform has managed to scupper the show once again. This morning Sinn Féin announced they would put down a petition of concern on the final stage of the Welfare Reform Bill due to be debated this afternoon.
Discussions between the Executive parties and the Department of Social Development have been ongoing since the Stormont House Agreement in order to agree a package of welfare mitigations. This package was due to be added into the Welfare Reform Bill as a clause. Sinn Féin, who have been pushing for a £564 million package over six years, have decided not to support the bill as an agreement has not been reached on this package.
Contrary to much of the early reaction, Sinn Féin’s position has not changed. They allowed the Bedroom Tax and other controversial aspects of the bill to pass at earlier stages, with the proviso that these aspects of the bill would be mitigated satisfactorily by the package of mitigations.
In a statement, Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness said,
“At Stormont House the five parties agreed a series of measures to protect the vulnerable and safeguard current and future welfare claimants under the control of the executive.
“However, the DUP have acted in bad faith and are now reneging on their commitments to protect the most vulnerable. It is their intention to provide only partial protection to current recipients of benefit and no protection whatsoever for future claimants.
“That is totally unacceptable. If the DUP want to strip benefits from children with disabilities, from adults with severe disabilities, the long-term sick; or push children further into poverty, then they need to explain and justify that. Sinn Féin certainly will not accept that approach.
“Until such times as the minister can produce a scheme for agreement which gives effect to the intent of the Stormont House Agreement by providing full protection for current and future claimants, Sinn Féin will not be in a position to support the Welfare Bill going through the Assembly.
“We are now pursuing a Petition of Concern.
“The DUP have attempted to effect Tory welfare cuts by subterfuge but at the heart of this crisis is the ideologically driven attack on the welfare state by the Tory-led government in London.”
The Welfare Reform Bill will still be debated today unless it is withdrawn by the Minister, Mervyn Storey. The Executive parties would then go back into negotiations to agree a package of mitigations that is acceptable to Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin should have the support of the SDLP in blocking the progress of the bill if it does go ahead.
Today’s move to block the bill is most probably a negotiating position but Sinn Féin have made clear their demands and if those demands are not met through a package of mitigations, they will explore all options to disrupt the passage of the bill.
If the bill does not pass shortly, the devolution of corporation tax as well as the other financial aspects of the Stormont House Agreement may not be implemented by Westminster. Complete failure to pass the Welfare Reform Bill will leave Stormont’s 2015/16 budget unsustainable and perhaps lead to an early Assembly election.