Housing Benefit (Welfare Supplementary Payment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 1:30 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Jonathan Bell Jonathan Bell DUP 1:30 pm, 16th January 2017

They say that a society can rightly be judged by how it looks after its most vulnerable members. I will not use any time allocated to me in the House to attack any fellow MLA. I think that there has been enough of that. I will attack the principle of those who would abuse social justice. Everyone in the House should, if we use the law of physics, realise that, in engineering terms, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. We will then know that there are many people in our society, often through no fault of their own, who find themselves in a position of disadvantage and where they have families that they are responsible for and who have housing needs, which is one of the most basic of all human rights.

In earlier debates in the House, when we looked at the number of social houses being predicted by the Housing Executive and others of 8,800, we were right to say, "Let us try to do better". We did that and sought 9,600 social houses. Is that number adequate? There will always be an infinite demand on the public service to be met by a finite level of public resource. When we look at social justice, we have to look at the money that has been allocated to us and our stewardship of it.

Later today, we will look at one of the gravest financial scandals — the renewable heat incentive — which is proposed to cost the taxpayer £1·2 thousand million. We will turn to that issue. I have not spoken on it since I made one programme; I will speak to it again later today.

The regulations before us have to look at how we give merit to people to mitigate the disadvantage that they endure. We cannot spend the same pound twice. It is not the time for Alice-in-Wonderland politics and pretending that there is money out there that we do not have. All that does is to lead the most vulnerable people into a sense of false hope that something can be done, when everyone in the House knows that it cannot be done.

I pay tribute to Professor Eileen Evason and her team and those who had the vision to look at what devolution could do for Northern Ireland. Professor Evason is one of the foremost experts in the British Isles on welfare policy, and, on our behalf, she examined how we could help the most vulnerable in our society. We all wanted to do more but were determined never to make the perfect the enemy of the possible. Let me say that again: we were determined never to make the perfect the enemy of the possible. All of us wanted to do more but were not going to let that want stop us from doing anything at all.

The regulations have been very carefully crafted. I have watched civil servants, some of whom are in the House today, in Committee and at other times, when I had the privilege of sitting in the Northern Ireland Executive, work through the detail of what could be done, long into the night and the early hours of the morning. That is why I welcome the regulations because they are the best possible answer from Northern Ireland to the people who are oppressed. That is a strong word but it is the right word: there are people out there who are oppressed by poverty.

Like Christopher Stalford, I grew up in working-class Belfast. We know what it was like in those days to be given a different colour dinner ticket than the next person. That is because society decided that there was a need to give help to families. With social housing and regulations that can help people, there is no alternative but to go with these regulations. In so doing, we will give the very best to the most oppressed people. It should hurt and anger all of us, as I believe it angers God, when people are socially oppressed by poverty, have difficulty finding a house for their families and dealing with the very basic need of shelter. I like the fact that the measures are merited and targeted. I like the fact that, in every way that I have looked at this, due to the expertise in our Civil Service, we will today, from all sides of the House, deliver for the most vulnerable people the best that we can in the circumstances.

I started by saying that we must always stand by the most vulnerable. I can see no better way to do that than to do what is now proposed.