Welfare Reform: Sinn Féin Meetings

Oral Answers to Questions — Social Development – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:45 pm on 27th April 2015.

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Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 2:45 pm, 27th April 2015

1. Mr Nesbitt asked the Minister for Social Development on what dates, since 23 December 2014, did he or his officials meet with representatives of Sinn Féin to discuss welfare reform or any associated element relating to the Stormont House Agreement. (AQO 8018/11-15)

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

In the weeks immediately following the Stormont Castle agreement on welfare reform on 19 December 2014, the focus of my work and that of my officials was on the development of an Executive paper which set out the main terms of the agreement and the associated costs. Sinn Féin representatives were consulted on the content of the draft Executive paper as part of the normal consultation process. That paper was subsequently agreed at the Executive meeting on 22 January 2015.

The Stormont Castle agreement committed the Executive parties to a package of support measures, including the development of a number of agreed schemes. The schemes were intended to provide the details of how the different measures would be implemented by the Social Security Agency. Preparatory work started in January 2015, and my officials started to share the detail on the schemes with Sinn Féin representatives from early February.

From the beginning of March 2015, the level of engagement with Sinn Féin representatives increased from weekly meetings to a period during that month when discussions on welfare reform were taking place on a daily basis. I was involved in a large number of those discussions, along with my officials, who have been providing technical support to the First Minister and deputy First Minister in seeking to identify solutions with regard to the supplementary payment scheme. Whilst discussions have continued during April, the level of engagement between myself and my officials and Sinn Féin representatives has reduced significantly.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Minister for his very explicit answer, which has made clear that there were daily meetings between his Department and Sinn Féin. He will be aware that the Ulster Unionist Party did not endorse the Stormont House Agreement. One of the reasons for that was our suspicion from past experience that there might have been a dual process and discussions not involving all five parties. Does the Minister think that it is in any way acceptable that the first time three of the five parties who sat at the Stormont House Agreement talks found out about this raft of private papers was when Sinn Féin published them?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for his supplementary question. Of course, the Member should not fall into a trap when considering the document that was produced by Sinn Féin, which, ironically, is called 'Welfare: The Facts'. Careful reading of some of the content and innuendo in that document will clearly indicate that it is nothing near the facts. I advise the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party to be very careful about believing everything he reads that comes from that particular organisation.

Mechanisms already exist through the normal consultation process by which any proposals which are to be put before the Executive will be consulted upon with the other Executive parties. It has also been argued and agreed that any proposed changes to the Stormont Castle agreement would have to be agreed at the five party leaders' forum, of which, I understand and know, the Member is a part. Sinn Féin had particular concerns about the detail of the supplementary payment scheme. The discussions that were taking place were to identify whether there were solutions within the parameters of the Stormont Castle agreement that could address its issues

As someone who has been involved in this process since we had what we believed was an agreement, it is extremely frustrating to be treated in the way that the House, and, more importantly, the people of Northern Ireland, have been treated by those parties, namely Sinn Féin, on this issue. The way in which they have treated their own community and the rest of Northern Ireland is shameful and needs to be highlighted on a day and daily basis. Northern Ireland is losing out, and that is because there was no agreement by one party to the Stormont Castle agreement and the Stormont House Agreement.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I ask the Minister to note that it is very interesting that Mr Nesbitt is saying that his party did not agree with the Stormont House Agreement, yet he sat around the table on the day it was agreed and said that it represented significant advances and that he would recommend it to his party executive and give it a fair wind.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order, please. I need a question.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

That is not what happened.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

I will leave that to one side. Will the Minister confirm that he will continue to meet our party and, indeed, any other party that is interested in resolving the outstanding matters on the Welfare Reform Bill?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The Member knows, as I trust that Members of this House know, that I will expend whatever time and effort that can be used in order to get an agreement on this issue. I am open to having discussions on this matter on a daily basis. However, I think that we need to face up to reality. As the First Minister indicated earlier, it is highly unlikely that we will get any further meaningful discussion on welfare until we have elections to the national Parliament on 7 May and have the formation of a Government at Westminster on which we are totally dependent.

I remind all Members, whether they would like to accept the fact or not, that it will only be through the formation of a Government at Westminster that we will have any finance to be able to run any Department in Northern Ireland, because we are totally dependent on the block grant and the money that comes from Her Majesty's Treasury in London.

Photo of Dolores Kelly Dolores Kelly Social Democratic and Labour Party

What information did Sinn Féin seek about future claimants; what type of benefits did that include; and can the Minister share any information that he provided to that party with the other parties in the House?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

The Member knows that I am more than happy to meet her party and representatives to discuss any of the issues that have been discussed to date. If that is what she is asking for, I will be more than happy to facilitate that. That discussion would be meaningful and beneficial. Whatever details may emerge will be dependent on who forms the Government after 7 May. However, having had discussions with the Labour Party just last week when some of its representatives were in Northern Ireland, I do not get the sense that there would be a huge difference from the current construct of welfare reform.

The First Minister highlighted the bedroom tax issue: in terms of other elements of mitigation that we in Northern Ireland would put in place or propose to put in place, some of them would be reflected in a national programme on welfare if a Labour Government or coalition were to be enacted in Westminster. I am more than happy to meet the Member and discuss the issues with her party.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I welcome the Minister's commitment to adequately resource the advice sector in response to welfare reform. Given that the deadlock on welfare reform is costing the Northern Irish taxpayer around £2 million a week, what discussions are currently taking place to make progress? Can the Minister assure the public that this issue has not been parked during the election campaign?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I assure the Member that the issue has not been parked. I pay tribute to my officials, who have worked tirelessly during the lead up to the Stormont House Agreement over Christmas, and subsequently, in providing technical support, help and information to the First Minister and the deputy First Minister. A huge amount of work has been done.

Amidst all that is taking place at the moment, with the focus on the election on 7 May, the voters of Northern Ireland need to keep in mind that there was one party that pulled the rug from under all our feet and left us in the situation whereby Northern Ireland is losing £2 million a week from the block grant.

That has to be set in the context of the stated aims and objectives of the party opposite that it is about protecting the vulnerable, those who are in need. If those are the actions of a party that wants to be seen to be protecting the vulnerable, they need to be judged against the reality for many organisations that are now feeling the pinch of decisions that cannot be made because the money is not there.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

With £564 million already supposedly to be siphoned off the block grant over future years, does the Minister have any sense that it is at all possible to find any further money without doing irreparable damage to basic services by further undermining the block grant? Can he make clear his position on that?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I assume that the Member refers to the overall package that was agreed. Let us remember that, at Stormont Castle and in the Stormont House Agreement, a financial package was agreed. The First Minister has made it clear that the amount of money has been agreed. The implementation has become the difficulty. In our work with Sinn Féin and other parties, we will continue to see how we can get a resolution of that.

The Member makes a point about the overall amount of money that will be needed. There is no bottomless pit. There is no tree somewhere that magically produces a huge amount of money to feed every political aspiration and wish list presented to satisfy a particular party. We have made it clear that the financial arrangements in the agreement that we all entered into are as they are. We have been working on their implementation. Were we to get an agreement, subject to the creation of a new Government at Westminster, and bedroom tax was not to be implemented, the only additional money that would be available at the minute would be the £20 million that we have already set aside in Northern Ireland to mitigate that measure.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will Members please note that questions 5 and 12 have been withdrawn?