How detached from reality are the Northern Ireland politicians?

Peter Robinson wrote an interesting summary of the situation with politics in Northern Ireland last week.

For those that don’t know, the government in Northern Ireland is a mandatory coalition that requires agreement on major issues. That agreement is proving to be impossible to get in the very central area of welfare reform which poses particular difficulties as Peter pointed out.

Welfare is a major proportion of the overall Stormont budget so any adjustments required to the welfare budget tend to involve large sums of money. Historically Northern Ireland has mirrored any changes in the welfare system on the mainland and the problem now is that they’re moving to universal credit and putting a cap on the benefits that a family can receive but Sein Fein don’t agree with that as they say that it imposes cuts on vulnerable sections of society. To an extent, they are correct if you take the assumption that people living on benefits are by definition vulnerable. However, to pay people what is in some cases considerably more than the same family could gain through working seems fundamentally wrong. Also worth noting is that average salaries in NI are lower than in the rest of the UK so it can pay people not to work.

In that the rest of the UK are cutting benefit payments, they are reducing the amount paid to NI by the amount that they estimate that welfare reform would save. As noted above, these are big numbers and without welfare reform these reductions are having knock-on effects in the public services provided by other areas of government in NI so, for instance, the reduction in payments to the Department of Regional Development means that they can’t afford to maintain all the street lights anymore.

However, a bigger problem is that the computer system which makes the payments is in England and supported by IT staff in England and both are in the process of being wound down as those benefits transfer to universal credit. In principle, the NI government could take over both but the money required to do that is quite staggering: Peter had been quoted £200-£300 million pounds per year to maintain them. They’re also quite old systems and he’s been quoted £1.6 billion to replace them. That’s a lot more than the NI based systems which preceeded them cost but going back to those systems isn’t a runner as the teams which supported them have long since dispersed. To give an idea of how different the scale is, the model of computer which ran all systems in the NI civil service just before they were moved to England was the same model as was used in England just to control the printers. Hence, natually, the IT teams were somewhat larger eg a typical benefit support team in NI was three people compared to 30 in England supporting their version of the system.

Finally, there’s the time issue. A decision to change to universal credit or to take over running the old systems needs to be made quite soon or those benefits affected will simply stop being paid and the deadline for that decision isn’t far off.

So what will they do? They can’t continue to not make a decision for sure but there doesn’t seem to be any clear way out of the impasse. Peter’s suggestion that they hand back welfare to Westminster is going to meet strong opposition from a range of parties. Westminster taking it back either voluntarily or compulsorily may not be easy to do either and also has a deadline as staff need trained and systems updated not to mention the reintegration of NI welfare.

What’s clear is that they need to make a decision and soon.

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