Welfare Reform debate misses point

I was called in to appear on the BBC Nolan TV show last week only for the debate to degenerate into a disgusting and abusive rant about people with genuine mental health problems from the supposed “commentator”. Unfortunately treating such debates as despicable entertainment rather than informed debate is one of many things which contributes to our democratic deficit.

What I would have said, as someone with some real expertise on the subject, is that Northern Ireland may actually have a pretty good deal on welfare reform now. However, this depends on how the “£565 million” for “mitigation” is spent.

If it is spent on a scatter-gun basis with no proper targeting of resources or medium-term plan, the outcome will be disastrous. It will mean we get the worst not of all worlds, but of most – a system based on assumptions which don’t apply here putting pressure on housing which is inadequate and on people to get jobs which can’t exist. We should be very, very clear about that.

On the other hand, we now have six years and £565 million to do something to tackle poverty for real. Given the right policies, that will be enough to make a good start.

Northern Ireland has three areas of particular difference from Great Britain which need particular attention – childcare, housing and jobs.

First, the Welfare Reform Bill assumes more wide-ranging state-sponsored childcare than we have here. It is no good pushing people into work if they literally cannot afford to do it! We need specific mitigation for parents, at least those on low income.

Second, the “Bedroom Tax” assumes that it is relatively easy to move social house. The legacy of conflict, sectarian segregation and other issues mean that is simply untrue in Northern Ireland. It is important that the derogation on this remains in place until the policy is abolished by the UK Government (which it will be, as it is unworkable even in Great Britain).

Third, we need to recognise that the only way to create jobs is through the private sector. We have not yet got around to understanding this. Public money is not going to continue to create “government posts” the way it did 10-20 years ago because there simply isn’t as much of it and we are not the special case we pretend we are anyway. The only way to create real work is through innovation and export. We must invest in the skills and training which will achieve this, so that at the end of the six-year period the jobs exist, well matched, for people to move into.

The fundamental problem with the debate is that it allows mouthpieces from both “Left” and “Right” completely to misrepresent what the Welfare system is. It is NOT a means of compensating people for being poor; it is a means of giving them a helping hand up from poverty. That is what it was designed to achieve. It is time we shifted the debate to recognise that basic point.

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