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We in the Democratic Unionist party have been outspoken in our opposition to welfare reform and I rise to continue that. The reforms outlined today are too stringent to work, and we fear that the most vulnerable and the needy will suffer. Those who need the help will struggle and, whether the Government want to admit this or not, I see people in my advice centres who will be worse off. I see people who are on disability allowances for a very good reason—who need to pay for carers and who cater for the day-to-day needs of their family. This is a matter of their being ill and needing help.
I believe passionately that we have a responsibility to help those who are less well off. I support the international fund that helps developing countries, and I advocated and voted for its retention. How can I do that and then stand here tonight and not advocate on behalf of those in need in my constituency? I am aware of those who take advantage and play the system, but I am aware also of those who do not, and it is for those people that I stand here tonight and make these comments.
Tonight Sinn Féin Members, who do not attend this Chamber, will be sitting at home talking about austerity but they will not be here to vote against it. They will be sitting watching this on TV, not here on these green Benches to register their opposition. I understand why people at home may be upset. Their quality of life may well be affected. It is up to us in this place to ensure that it does not dip below a certain standard, although I fear the standard may well be too low at this moment in time. I believe in compassion and in the need to understand other people.
In Northern Ireland we have a legacy from the troubles of mental health issues, underlined by the latest report from the University of Ulster on behalf of the commission for victims and survivors. It states that 30% of the population have mental health issues as a result of the troubles; that 7% indicated they had been injured during them; and that a further 36% said a close relative or friend had either been injured or killed. Putting all those figures together, it implies that in the early years of this decade, about 500,000 people had been affected by the conflict in some way. Those figures are enormous and, under these welfare reforms, those people in Northern Ireland will be directly affected.
The bedroom tax has been an issue, and the supplementary payment fund will definitely hit hardest the people who can least afford it. One of my main concerns is the predicament that families and, especially, children will find themselves in. I shall read the words of the chief executive of Barnardo’s, which need repeating in this Chamber:
“Beyond the well-publicised cuts to tax credits, which will leave many families on low wages struggling to buy basics, the government also plans to cap benefits. For the moment this will be £20,000 (£23,000 in Greater London), but a clause in the bill allows the government to change the amount in future too—without consulting parliament. This paves the way for the threshold to sink ever lower, consigning children from larger families to the breadline without scrutiny. The most worrying element is the decision to ditch the government’s duty to end child poverty by 2020. Instead this bill would redefine ‘poverty’, scrapping income as the way we measure being poor and replacing it with worklessness. Given that two-thirds of our poorest children already live in ‘working’ families, this is a completely unacceptable way to measure hardship.”
That is a concern for me; it should be a concern for everybody in this Chamber; we wonder whether it is a concern for the Government.
I stand again with my colleagues and say I cannot support the Bill. I cannot support a Government who persist with this agenda, no matter what the consequences. We in the DUP will say “no” tonight. This Bill will affect the disabled; it will affect children; it will affect those in society whom we are bound to protect. The Government are targeting those who can least afford it. This is too much, too far and is totally unacceptable.