Special Educational Needs
Northern Ireland Assembly
The Welfare Reform Bill is a “tsunami of cuts” and “a recipe for deprivation”. Those are not my words, but the words of Professor Eileen Evason, who is a respected expert and broadcaster on welfare matters. She made those comments when she addressed a conference that we held recently on welfare reform.
The SDLP is not in the business of scaremongering, as some have tried to accuse us. We are in the business of doing all that we can to protect hardworking families, the poor, the sick and those with disabilities. We recognise the need for a reform of the system, and we accept that, at times, it is abused by a very tiny minority of people. Abuse cannot be tolerated and should not be allowed to continue, but the answer is not to take a blunderbuss approach, such as the Tory-concocted legislation that is going through the House of Commons.
The Bill will not lift people out of poverty, and it will not lift people into work, as the Tories and the ‘Daily Mail’ would have us believe. The truth is that it will demoralise already vulnerable people, and push them further into poverty and deprivation and out to the margins of society.
In the past few days, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has demonstrated that a family with two children will be £580 a year worse off, and a couple with no children will be £100 a year worse off, as a result of changes in the child and working tax credit system.
As some other Members have pointed out, women, children and those living with disability in Northern Ireland will be hardest hit.
The issue that we face in the Bill, with its raft of welfare cuts, is that it does not offer a solution based on an analysis of any of the problems associated with the current social security system and economic environment. It is a package of cuts wrapped up in a populist “make work pay” banner. Even that superficial mantra is flawed because to make work pay, there must be quality, decent paying jobs around. The SDLP is all about getting people back into work for the financial benefit, personal development and satisfaction it might bring them. But, as the recent unemployment figures from the Office for National Statistics show, the jobs are not out there for people at this time.
My limited time inhibits me from fully analysing all the flaws of the Bill. Others have highlighted the impact on mothers, especially those with babies, the impact on families, on those living with disability and on those with long-term serious illness. I would like to focus briefly on the economic impact of these welfare cuts for Northern Ireland as a whole, because they are wide-ranging. The cuts, taking into account inflation, will take some £450 million out of local purses and wallets, which means that that £450 million will be taken out of local retail tills.
As we have discussed many times in the House, local retailers and traders in towns, villages and cities across Northern Ireland are struggling to keep their doors open at the moment. The economic consequences do not end there. The cuts will detrimentally impact the number of business start-ups: a key objective of our Executive. It will be assumed under the new rules that an entrepreneur starting up a business is earning the national minimum wage and is therefore precluded from any entitlement to benefits while they try to get established. Starting up a business is initially costly and risky. Removing the safety net will act as a barrier to new business start-ups and entrepreneurs. I therefore appeal to our Executive, if they are serious and sincere about rebalancing our economy, supporting entrepreneurs, supporting SMEs —