So what will happen if Northern Ireland doesn’t accept welfare reform?

The social security system has been, up to now, fairly standard UK-wide. It wasn’t that the system was exactly the same as historically there have been different sets of laws in the mainland and in Northern Ireland. However, the laws were arranged so that the amounts paid in the various benefits were the same even when there were different computer systems making those payments.

The operational aspects of that changed about 20 years ago when the computer systems were amalgamated so that, for example, the computer system which calculates and pays your retirement pension in Belfast is exactly the same one that calculates and pays it in Birmingham. Prior to that there was a system in Northern Ireland which paid the pensions in Northern Ireland and a different system on the mainland. However, the amount calculated to be paid was the same thus the changeover was seamless.

Historically, changes in social security payments in England were always reflected in corresponding changes in payments made in Northern Ireland. This time around though the policitians in Northern Ireland haven’t, yet, reached agreement to make the necessary changes which in turn means that Northern Ireland has been subject to penalty payments corresponding, roughly, to the amount that would have been saved if they’d made those changes. Those penalty charges are starting to mount up and we’re now starting to see the start of the effects of such penalties being imposed.

First off, it’s worth noting that the budget for the social security department is usually the highest of all the departments so penalties imposed on it that need to be spread amongst the other departments hit the other departments quite hard. Secondly, the Northern Ireland executive have resolved that neither education nor health will have cuts imposed which leaves fewer departments to shoulder the cost and that cost will be quite substantial.

This week, we’ve already seen the announcement that DRD won’t have enough cash to repair all the street lights and that DOJ will be suffering a similar major cut. They are only the first to make their announcements and similar cuts will be happening in public services over the coming year if agreement on welfare reform doesn’t happen. Of course, without agreement, it’s not just this year but every year to come that will have cuts. They’ll be increasing in scale too: it wouldn’t just be “tens of thousands” of street lights that would go out this year, but rather that a similar additional number would go out each and every year thereafter.

What’s also a looming problem is that the ability to pay the benefits affected will gradually dwindle as time goes on. Despite what some of the politicians think, the computers currently making the payments will be switched off in due course or rather the ability to support them will be. In fact, the ability to support them is already diminishing as the support teams are being transferred to other duties. For a change there really is a firm end date for them to work to and unmissable deadlines are approaching very quickly indeed. Even basic training for those in the benefits offices takes time and, without agreement, that won’t be done. Changing over to the new system is something that will take time to do and the time available to do that changeover is running out.

How’s it going to look if some key deadline passes and it isn’t possible to changeover in time? How are they planning on explaining to the thousands of recipients of the affected benefits that it’s no longer possible to pay them?


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