I spent Sunday morning in a coffee shop in Bangor being interviewed by Ciaran Tracey of BBC NI Spotlight about the Stormont version of the coalition government’s welfare reforms. The interview will form part of tonight’s Spotlight investigation (BBC1 NI at 10:40pm).
So what’s my angle? Well, simply put, it’s this. The welfare reforms, as implemented in the rest of the UK, are designed to address a problem that’s particularly acute in Northern Ireland – namely non-participation in the economy. While, in GB, some 22% of the working-age population opts-out (many choosing benefits over work) the equivalent percentage in Northern Ireland is around 27%. Various departments have commissioned various reports that outline how damaging this is to the Northern Ireland economy and how various targets will need to be met to address it. But nothing really is being done.
The GB welfare reforms were designed to encourage people who can work to get (back) into work. They also address some of the fundamental issues with a system that allowed people to choose benefits for years, or even decades, rather than work. If you want to get some idea of just how big a problem this is you might want to watch an episode of Channel 5’s Benefits Britain.
But the Stormont version of the benefits reform is a cop-out. Instead of implementing a welfare-to-work programme the Executive has created a slush fund that essentially ring-fences benefits should anyone be deemed to have suffered any negative consequences of a loss of benefits. It’s not so much welfare to work as simply welfare.
Obviously this slush fund has to be paid for. In Britain there has been a considerable growth in private sector employment since the reforms were implemented – although, to be fair, in-work benefits payments have increased as well. But in Northern Ireland we face the prospect of little change – and of a continuing high rate of non-working benefits claimants, and consequently, other departmental budgets being squeezed too much on the alter of benefits protectionism.