Welfare Reform: overseeing the inevitable
The Assembly is in welfare reform limbo – however, this impasse cannot continue forever.
Putting aside the political hurdles that have to be overcome, it remains likely that something similar to the changes seen across the rest of the UK will come to Northern Ireland, and sooner rather than later.
Scotland has already seen the beginning stages of welfare reform (WR), and is in a position to measure its effects in the pockets where it is in place.
Key to this has been Holyrood’s dedicated Welfare Reform Committee –set up with the sole purpose of overseeing the effects of WR on all aspects of political administration and society.
As things stand – so, presuming WR goes ahead in Northern Ireland and does so on similar lines to before – Stormont has emphatically rejected the suggestion that we do the same here.
A large majority of members quashed the idea, with the most common objection being that the Social Development Committee is already responsible for oversight.
In the next week, Scope will take a closer look at some findings from studies looking at the consequences of WR in Scotland, anticipating how they are set to play out here.
Scope has also spoken exclusively with Michael McMahon, who represents the constituency Uddingston and Bellshill, about the work of the committee, of which he is convenor.
The Labour MSP outlined the reasons for the establishment of the committee, how it has functioned, as well as outlining the effects of WR so far.
Last month the committee published a report it had commissioned from Professor Steve Fothergill, of Sheffield Hallam University, into this matter.
Mr McMahon said: “It’s not a pretty picture, and none of it is positive.
“Fothergill’s report talks about averages [in terms of financial impact] and the averages are eye-watering. But averages mean some people will be below that and some will be above, so the impact on some can be excessive.
“And given we are talking about people already on the bread line it’s clear just how badly some people are affected.
“Most of the people who have told us how the committee has done have been positive, but there’s been some criticism because we have on occasion come down on party lines and people don’t like that because they don’t care about the political differences between members.
“They are asking for something and want it delivered, so there’s some criticism when there’s failure to agree, but overall there’s been credit for giving a voice to those who have been affected.
Stormont said no to a dedicated committee during its marathon debates on the finer details of WR in February (proposed amendment no. 55).
The SDLP tabled an amendment calling for precisely that, but the idea only received support from its own members and lone Green Party MLA Steven Agnew, ending up comprehensively defeated by 76 votes to 11.
Mr McMahon said: “You have a committee that deals with welfare reform, but you don’t have a committee dealing with the impact of welfare reform.
“In practical terms, it was the third sector which drove the existence of our committee because they were the ones running from pillar to post, trying to address all the different aspects of Welfare Reform.
“Everyone knows who has the responsibility for each area but if you are an organisation dealing with people at the coalface, if you like, of this sort of transformative change in society, you do not have the capacity to deal with that – trying to find the right politician for each issue, and so on.
“I take the point that might be made about Northern Ireland, that there is a committee dealing with it, but welfare reform impacts on health, local authorities, finance, and further afield. We have found ourselves, as a committee, speaking with ministers from each of these departments on aspects of the changes coming forward, as well as the minister for welfare reform.”
Ultimately welfare reform will require oversight, and questions about the Committee for Social Development’s suitability for this role are broadly two fold:
- can the committee be reasonably expected to take on what could be an enormous extra workload while still performing all its other functions?
- will the effects of WR be so widespread and so substantial in other areas (health, for example) that it turns out to be inappropriate that the Committee for Social Development to take responsibility for its scrutiny?
There has been substantial party-political wrangling about WR in Northern Ireland.
While none of the major parties claims to support it per se, there are varying degrees of weary acceptance about its inevitability, given the stakes laid down by Westminster.
Now the whole bill has stalled with new claims and counter-claims of political finagling. Mr McMahon says that, when it comes to any eventual execution of the reforms, this will not impress anyone.
“The point, looking from our perspective, is that my committee is cross-party.
“We have a Conservative member on the committee and they are the people who are causing the impact - so they still know that the impact needs to be addressed.
“Even though they would argue that they reasons behind welfare reform are real they sit on that committee and work constructively, on the basis they believe welfare reform is necessary and right, but that does not mean you don’t have to take consideration of what they impact of these changes are on the heath service, on local authorities, on individuals.
“Conservatives argue those changes are needed. We would say the changes take disadvantaged people and puts them in a difficult place.
“But we all appreciate that you have to look at how the health service delivers services in relation to the changes, you need to look at how local authorities deliver services and have to look at how the financial impact pans out.
“So the Conservative member of the committee might come at it from a different ideological perspective, and still wants to address the practical consequences.
“There have also been differences between Labour and SNP, even though they start from a similar position, i.e. that these are ideologically driven changes.”
Reacting to reform
The next step for the Holyrood committee has been chosen based on its findings so far, and it is set to investigate the impact of welfare reform on women.
Whether the Social Development Committee or some other group of MLAs is responsible for the oversight of WR – if and when it comes to NI – they will be able to examine work already done in Scotland and use it to inform their own choices.
“If they want to learn any lesson from us it’s to put the focus on those who have been impacted and keep that – and once you have that focus that will drive everything else that you will do
“Set aside any political agendas you will have because we work on a cross-party basis, with parties who both support and oppose welfare reform, but still come out with constructive changes to impact - and if we can do it, others can do it.”
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