What’s going to happen with welfare reform in Northern Ireland?

For a very long time, the social security payments scheme in Northern Ireland was more or less identical but separate from the scheme in the mainland. Thus, for example, if you retired in Northern Ireland and then moved to England, your retirement pension would be paid from the English system but the amount would be the same.

However, up until the early 1990s there were separate computer systems to do this in Northern Ireland and in England. Then with the replacement of the English system in the 1990s, the running of the systems gradually moved to England and the various computer teams supporting the old Northern Ireland systems were disbanded.

Roll that forward 20-odd years and the reform of social security that is taking place in England, Scotland and Wales hasn’t, yet, been accepted.

Options as to how to proceed are quite limited.

Firstly, NI could carry on with the old system for a while. There are penalties of, at present, £5 million a month being applied and that’ll have consequences for the non-social security money i.e. there would need to be substantial cuts to balance the books. However, there’s only one computer system now, run in a number of centres across the country but supported centrally and that’s rather a bigger problem. Once the mainland change over to universal credit, support for the old systems will stop and those support teams will disband. The NI computer system is actually in England and, in principle, NI could buy that but what they can’t buy is the support team as that will be moving on to the new system. Outcome of this option? Well, something like 2 or 3 years from now the social security payments in NI will simply stop being paid because the computer system which is paying them now will either be switched off or, if it’s not, it will develop a fault and the team that currently fixes faults won’t exist. In practice, this is likely to end in chaos.

Second, continue on with the old system but get a replacement to avoid the consequences of the switch-off above. Again, there are the penalties to contend with. However, more significant is that 2 to 3 year deadline: it just isn’t long enough to train up a new support team, even if the will to do that were there (which it isn’t) and the GB teams were able to train up a backup team (unlikely in the timeframe). It would also be seriously expensive as the GB systems were written with much larger IT teams than are usual in NI (around 10 times as large) so running costs would be much higher per capita.

Third, agree the changes in welfare in NI. Best option probably, but seemingly rather unlikely to happen.

Fourth, give back the social security to direct rule. Not that different from the previous option but probably a whole lot better from the point of view of the local politicians as they’ll be able to argue that the cuts are imposed directly by London.

So what’s likely to happen? The possibility of social security payments simply stopping should focus the minds of the politicians but they don’t seem to believe that the computer system would be switched off – what they haven’t allowed for is that without support, it’ll just stop working sooner or later. Neither of the first two options are great for NI given the penalties that will be applied and the consequences for public services. Options 3 and 4 aren’t great politically so unlikely to happen before the upcoming elections.

 

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