Report on the Welfare Reform Bill
Committee: Social Development
Date: Thursday, 14 February 2013
Reference: NIA Bill 13/11-15
ISBN: Only available online
Mandate Report Number: 2011/15
Together with the Minutes of Proceedings of the Committee relating to the Report, Minutes of Evidence, and Written Submissions
The Committee for Social Development is a Statutory Departmental Committee established in accordance with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the Belfast Agreement, section 29 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and under Standing Order 48.
The Committee has power to:
- consider and advise on Departmental budgets and annual plans in the context of the overall budget allocation;
- consider relevant secondary legislation and take the Committee stage of primary legislation;
- call for persons and papers;
- initiate inquires and make reports; and
- consider and advise on any matters brought to the Committee by the Minister for Social Development.
Key aspects of the Bill
The Welfare Reform Bill consists of 7 Parts, 134 clauses and 12 schedules and is generally acknowledged as the most radical reform of the welfare system in a generation.
The stated aim of the Bill from an operational perspective is to make the welfare system simpler to administer and, from a customer’s perspective, easier to understand. The key principle of the Bill is to make work pay by ensuring that a person will always be better off in work than on benefits.
Central to the Bill is the introduction of a new benefit called Universal Credit which replaces a wide range of existing benefits; the replacement of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) with a Personal Independence Payment (PIP); the introduction of a new sanctions’ regime; and the establishment of a benefit cap, set at £26k per annum.
During the course of the oral evidence sessions the Committee became increasingly concerned about the potential impact of the Bill on human rights and equality. Subsequently, at its meeting on 8 November 2012 the Committee agreed a motion under Standing Order 35 to refer the Bill to an Ad Hoc Committee on Conformity with Human Rights and Equality Requirements.
The motion was supported by the Assembly on 20 November 2012 and was then referred to the Ad Hoc Committee and the formal consideration of the Bill by the Committee for Social Development was suspended.
Prior to the formal Committee Stage resuming the Committee agreed a motion to extend the Committee Stage by two weeks, until 19 February 2013, and this was supported by the Assembly on 28 January 2013.
The Ad Hoc Committee reported to the Assembly on 29 January 2013 and the Committee resumed its consideration of the Bill on 30 January 2013.
Approach to recommendations
While the Committee agreed the general principles and aims of the Bill it had serious concerns about its potential negative impact, particularly on vulnerable groups. Therefore, in its engagement with stakeholders the Committee specifically asked what mitigating measures needed to be put in place in order to minimise the impact on the most vulnerable in society. In drawing up these recommendations the Committee was acutely aware of the arguments relating to parity with GB and the potential cost implications. While social security arrangements are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the costs (approximately £3bn per annum) are covered by the Treasury and are separate from the NI Block Grant.
The Minister made it clear to the Committee that any deviation from parity that had an associated cost would have to be borne by the Block Grant i.e. the Treasury would not make any additional funding provision to accommodate these changes. Therefore, any recommendations that had additional costs associated with them would have to be discussed and agreed by the Executive Committee.
The Committee acknowledged that it did not have a role in dictating the spending priorities of the Executive nor was it in a position to evaluate the spending priorities of other departments vis à vis the costs associated with its recommendations.
In that context, where the Committee made recommendations that had associated costs the Committee agreed to oppose those related clauses, without prejudice to the outcome of the Minister’s discussions and individual positions that may be taken by Members at a later stage of the Bill process.
Members felt that this approach allowed the Minister the flexibility to engage with Executive colleagues on the potential to fund these recommendations and therefore offered the best possibility for adoption of a range of mitigation measures to address their concerns and those of stakeholders.
These measures are encapsulated in the Recommendations section of the report and are summarised below.
Download the full report here