Just who has the powers over Welfare in Northern Ireland?

We all got a bit distracted over the resignation of Peter Robinson as DUP leader, but until we get announcement of a new First Minister and party leader, it’s back to the main issues at hand.  Today the Welfare Reform bill goes before the House Commons at 2:30pm.

Last week I wrote a piece explaining about some of the legislative processes around how this was going to be passed. However, since then the Northern Ireland Office have published both the Welfare Reform Order in Council and the Delegated Powers Memorandum.

These two documents contain just who is precisely responsible for what and an explainer for those seeking to understand what these measures mean.

There are two key explainers in the document which might shed some light on the debate over who has the powers. Let’s start with the Order in Council itself (ignore the fact that it referes to the Secretary of State as “he”) but it talks about making further orders to “transfer the powers back to the Department.”


Welfare 2

Then we have the Delegated Powers Memorandum that also conveys the same message;



There is a sunset clause in the Order which comes up in December 2016 which if I am reading it correctly gives powers to the Secretary of State in this area until that point. Granted, it should be pointed out that she is only legislating for what was agreed and voted for (by DUP/Sinn Fein and Alliance MLAs anyway).

These documents were only put up the day after the vote in the Assembly, but they do shed some light on this argument about who has the powers over Welfare in Northern Ireland.

Again this is all very complex, so if anybody else has any light to shed in the comments section, I’d be much obliged.

Note about todays Welfare Bill in the House of Commons- I understand the SDLP have tabled amendments at Westminster to restrict powers of the Secretary of State and bring forward the sunset clause from December 2016, to May 2016. 


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  • Kevin Breslin

    So we’ve a commitment that the discretionary funds are under Stormont’s control at least?

  • chrisjones2

    Not to be flippant but does it matter?

  • Catcher in the Rye


    Some points on the legislation :

    ignore the fact that it referes to the Secretary of State as “he”

    The Secretary of State is always referred to in legislation as “he” irrespective of who occupies the role. This is more to do with the lack of gender-neutral pronouns in the English language than anything else.

    You’ll also note that the legislation says “The Secretary of State” rather than specifically “The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland”. Again this is consistent with all other legislation. Theoretically the powers can be exercised by any cabinet minister, although of course in practice they will only ever be exercised by the SoSNI. This avoids problems if the office is abolished or renamed, as Labour were considering doing for a while when there was a proposal to create a “Secretary of State for the Regions”.

    The effect of the legislation is to allow the Secretary of State to exercise the same powers that the Minister of Social Development does in the context of welfare powers.

    There is a sunset clause in the Order which comes up in December 2016 which if I am reading it correctly gives powers to the Secretary of State in this area until that point.

    No, it doesn’t. This is a nitpick but it is important.

    The sunset clause applies a time limit on the period within which Her Majesty may make legislation concerning welfare in Northern Ireland by Order in Council.

    There is no time limit on the Secretary of State’s powers to make orders under the terms of the Order in Council. Of course that time limit may be created by the Order in Council itself.

    This is a bit confusing as there are two types of Order. The Order in Council (capital O) is for all intents and purposes primary legislation. In this case the Order in Council will be practically identical to the Welfare Bill that was laid before the assembly and voted down earlier this year. The Order in Council is exercised by Her Majesty on behalf of the Government. The NIO’s notes quoted above strike me as a little inaccurate, as it is not the Secretary of State who is legislating but the Queen (acting under advice).

    The other type of “order” concerns the newly-created secondary powers granted to the minister under the terms of the legislation. These will be outlined in the Order in Council when it is published. Unless the Order contains time limits the NI Secretary of State will exercise the same powers that the Minister of Social Development does. These are usually things to set the benefit rates, commencement times, specify certain routine matters etc.

  • Jag

    George Osborne is expected to unveil the most severe cuts ever when he announces his Autumn Statement on Wednesday. The UK has a projected deficit % in 2016 which is more than three times that of the “basketcase” Republic of Ireland (4.3% of GDP in UK compared with 1.2% in Republic). George is expected to wield the axe as he never has before.

    When (not “if”) welfare is cut in Westminster for the Brits, then what is to stop Madame Villiers from implementing those cuts here.

    Surely SF can’t be so stupid as to think that just because welfare has been handed back to the Brits, that they can wash their hands of the issue. Does SF know there’s a couple of elections in 2016.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    SF might not be so stupid, but they certainly believe their voters are.

    Osborne’s plans on tax credits were never devolved so would always have gone through anyway. But any further changes to welfare rates are now under the control of the British Secretary of State.

  • hugh mccloy

    Where is this extra money the parties told us about. Secretary of State specifically states

    “Northern Ireland’s Executive has agreed to spend £585 million, over the next four years, to provide top-up payments to those losing out under changes to the benefits and tax credit systems.”

    DSD will still control welfare, however Westminister will set the rules.

  • OneNI

    Have to say this whole debacle over welfare is very encouraging!. If Sinn Fein can be brought to realise that they have been talking nonsense on welfare for years there is hope that they can also eventually understand their fact-free economic madness of a United Ireland is absolute rubbish too