“Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more.”

We want to respectfully challenge those who hold authority in civil society to act with justice and to show compassion to those most in need. Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more.

Those were the words of Cardinal Brady at an event tonight looking at welfare reform in Northern Ireland involving the main church leaders along with the Secretary of State Owen Paterson and Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland. The evening was part of the wider community dialogue on how Northern Ireland should implement – or modify – Westminister’s welfare reform.

The Irish Catholic leader was joined by Dr Richard Clarke (President of the Irish Council of Churches), Archbishop Alan Harper (Church of Ireland), Rev Ian Henderson (Methodist President), Dr Ivan Patterson (Presbyterian Moderator) as well as a panel of interest groups who will be affected by any legislative changes.

In June 2004, Cardinal Brady (who was then still just an Archbishop) attended the opening night of the General Assembly as a personal guest of the incoming moderator Dr Ken Newell, attracting mild protest. Back in the same hall this evening, Archbishop of Armagh Cardinal Seán Brady opened his remarks by commenting on his surroundings:

[Presbyterian Assembly Buildings] symbolises the mix of deep Christian conviction, human genius and hard work that made Belfast one of the fastest growing economic hubs of the industrial revolution. It is a reminder of past achievements and also of the many opportunities that lie ahead.

He went on to point out the parallels between the stained glass windows behind him (representing Moses and the Ten Commandments, and four Gospel parables) and the subject of Social Welfare Reform that was under discussion. The parable of the talents was a reminder that “sitting back and letting others take all the burden is not an option in the Christian vision of work, welfare and society”.

In another panel we have perhaps the best known parable of the Gospels, the story of the Good Samaritan. This parable reminds us that for each and every one of us life can throw up any number of unexpected set- backs and challenges. We are reminded that, through no fault of their own, many in our society have to cope with unforeseen events that leave them vulnerable and in need. We cannot walk by on the other side, as if we have no responsibility. We have a duty to help. Their need may be short term or long term, depending on their circumstances. But there can be no doubt that caring for those who are vulnerable and in need is a fundamental duty of a Christian society.

As well as highlighting the role of “thousands of volunteers, clergy and church workers are engaged every day in responding to the social and economic challenges of their local community”. He drew attention to “initiatives like the Skainos project and organisations like the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul” that highlighted “the potentially dramatic implications of Social Welfare reform for Northern Ireland”.

In all our representations to politicians in Westminster and the local Assembly to date, our primary concern as Church leaders has been to clarify the implications of the Social Welfare reforms passing through Westminster for the people of Northern Ireland.

We want to respectfully challenge those who hold authority in civil society to act with justice and to show compassion to those most in need. Those with the least capacity to suffer cuts should not be made to suffer more. We want to express our concern at the potentially dramatic and negative consequences for some of the most vulnerable in our society and for the wider economy in Northern Ireland.

Brady highlighted the Institute for Fiscal Studies belief that “after London (because it is a high rent area), Northern Ireland will be the region hardest hit by these reforms”. The high numbers of people in receipt of Disability Living Allowance, high number of families with children on benefits, made the issues being discussed “critically important for literally tens of thousands of people across all sections of our community”.

We have drawn attention to the high levels of economic disadvantage which may be further compounded by the dramatic withdrawal of over half a billion pounds a year from a struggling Northern Ireland economy.

In particular we expressed concern about the implications for childhood poverty in Northern Ireland. We already have the highest level of child poverty in the UK, twice the rate of any other region.

We are the only region where child poverty is increasing. We have made a special appeal to the Secretary of State and others to ensure that whatever reforms are introduced are accompanied by pro-active measures to stem the increase in childhood poverty in Northern Ireland.

Tonight wasn’t the first time that the church leaders had spoken up about these issues. In December, they flew to London to meet Lord Freud, the minister drafting the legislation.

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Owen Paterson, was expected to make remarks this evening that would put the onus on local politicians:

It is for the Executive in Northern Ireland to bring forward the legislation here once the Bill has been passed in Westminster, and for legal and practical reasons parity should be maintained. There will however be areas where the Executive will want flexibility to fit local circumstances and we will do whatever we can to accommodate that. That is why we have been meeting Nelson and his department officials and many other groups such as the churchleaders, so that we can help ensure that Northern Ireland’s specific issues are reflected where possible.

The local minister with responsibility for social development and zipwires Nelson McCausland reiterated his desire to find a local accommodation within the NI Executive “to find ways to minimize the most negative aspects of these reforms” while maintaining parity with the rest of the UK.

If we are to be successful in tackling poverty and growing a sustainable economy in Northern Ireland then the general direction of travel of these reforms is right.

The Minister for Social Development said that “most of us are supportive of the principles underpinning the reforms”, wanting to see “a welfare system that provides financial support for those unable to work due to illness or disability and, for those that can work but are unable to find work at a point in time”.

Reforming the welfare system is necessary for many reasons. The current system is too complex and all too often traps people in benefit dependency. This highly complex system involves an increasing level of expenditure which is no longer affordable.

Change is clearly necessary if we are to lift our people from often inter generational poverty, whilst at the same time growing the economy to bring long-term benefits.

We need to encourage a spirit of personal responsibility while ensuring that welfare support is seen as fair and just by those who pay for it, the tax payer. We must break down the barriers that stop people getting into work and make the experience of claiming benefits more akin to being in work. This is crucial in changing attitudes and behaviour so that more people can start taking greater control of their lives.

Public expenditure had to get “under control” and the welfare reform budget could not “simply grow and grow”. Currently the UK Exchequer funds £4.9 billion of social security and housing benefits to Northern Ireland. While “parity is not negotiable”, the minister said there were “significant areas where we can explore delivering welfare reform in a different way”.

The NI Executive has already established its Social Protection Fund “to provide some support where we discover changes implemented through welfare reform will have an adverse impact on those dependent on benefits”. In the future, the minister said he had raised at the Executive the potential for change around free school meals and the replacement for the Social Fund. (These benefits total £300 million and are under the control of the NI Executive.)

But the minister said his first priority is “to tackle poverty through growing the economy”.

Northern Ireland has a high level of economic inactivity. Almost 1 in 5 of people of working age are economically inactive here; the highest figure in the UK. Most of those people will be in receipt of Disability or Incapacity benefits.

Unemployment is a worrying factor however growth in the economy will begin to address unemployment, but not economic inactivity. During the last period of economic growth there was a substantial decrease in those unemployed but there was actually an increase in the economically inactive through disability. We must begin to understand why this is the case. And we must seek to address its cause.

In the hall, panellists included representatives from the Citizens Advice Bureau, St Vincent de Paul, the Skainos Project, Willowfield Parish Church social action project, the Salvation Army and the Presbyterian Church’s Social Witness Board.

Update – while not part of his released speech, Nelson McCausland is reported on the BBC as suggesting a number of potential areas in which savings could be made:

Free transport for better off pensioners may have to be withdrawn to help offset the impact of welfare reform in Northern Ireland, according to the Social Development Minister …

Mr McCausland conceded such a move would be radical.

However, he said it was time to start a debate about the future of things such as free transport and winter fuel payments.

UpdateRev Lesley Carroll has blogged her reflections on and impressions of the event.

Alan Meban. Normally to be found blogging over at Alan in Belfast where you’ll find an irregular set of postings, weaving an intricate pattern around a diverse set of subjects. Comment on cinema, books, technology and the occasional rant about life. On Slugger, the posts will mainly be about political events and processes. Tweets as @alaninbelfast.