Welfare Reform Conference: relive the debate
NICVA and the Law Centre (NI)'s conference on welfare reform aimed to spark a debate on the issues surrounding the Welfare Reform Bill which is currently progressing through Parliament in Westminster. Bringing together representatives from the voluntary and community sector, prominent decision-makers, policy makers, and eminent contributors to the welfare reform debate, this event offered an opportunity to really engage with the issues and contribute to the debate.
The consensus on the day was that the overly complicated and bureaucratic social security system does need overhauled, however there is much more to this than simplification. The issues are huge and the potential ramifications for Northern Ireland have yet to be fully understood. Though we do know two things – that these changes will mean less spending power available for the economy and that once again the most vulnerable and disadvantaged will bear the brunt of attempts to correct economic problems that are not of their making.
The conference was livestreamed via the internet on the day, and the debate continued on twitter #wrni. A live blog also kept anyone who couldn't attend up to speed on who said what. The livestreamed footage is now available by following the links below.
Welfare Reform Conference videos
Paul Clark, compere for the conference, welcomes delegates to the conference, introduces the 'hot topic' of welfare reform, and tells a very funny story about the perils of misdirected emails.
Bob Stronge, NICVA Chairman, sets the scene for the conference giving background on the progression of the Welfare Reform Bill through the Parliament in Westminster and its imminent introduction into the Northern Ireland Assembly. Pointing out a range of factors which need to be taken into account in the Northern Ireland context (disability, legacy of conflict, high fuel prices, etc) Bob speaks about the vital role of the voluntary and community sector in dealing with the consequences of welfare reform.
Neil Couling, Director of benefit strategy at the Department for Work and Pensions is responsible for policy development on universal credit. In his presentation he looks at the current picture of welfare in the UK and how policy to date has disincentivised people from working. The complexity of the system and the barriers to work have led to a need to reform. Universal credit is the centrepiece of the Welfare Reform Bill and is an attempt to simplify the system and to make work pay.
Les Allamby, Director of Law Centre (NI), gives an overview of welfare reform in a Northern Ireland context. Beginning with the acknowledgment that universal credit is the "kernel of a good idea trying to get out" Les focuses on the issues that are going to have a serious impact in Northern Ireland. Changes to housing benefit in particular are a disaster waiting to happen in Northern Ireland and changes to benefits for children coupled with the complete lack of a childcare strategy will lead to more problems.
This question and answer session offered an opportunity to open the debate up to the floor and to really engage the audience with the issues.
Baroness Ruth Lister shares her experiences from the House of Lords which examined the Welfare Reform Bill in detail. She speaks of her frustration at the overturning of the Lords amendments and highlights the lack of input from Northern Ireland peers. She also offered some advice to the Northern Ireland Assembly “Use your flexibility to the maximum, particularly around payment times (fortnightly instead of monthly), and the purse/wallet issue. Carve out your own space - become a flagship for the rest of the UK who I hope will look to Northern Ireland on this”.
Will Haire speaks of the immense challenge that welfare reform poses for the Northern Ireland Executive and us all asking how we make it work for Northern Ireland. He explains that Executive approval for the Bill will take about 12 months and that a sub-committee is already looking at the issues and flexibilities that might be available to Northern Ireland. Speaking of the particular challenges in Northern Ireland Mr Haire highlights the importance of pulling policies together effectively.
Panel discussion and workshop feedback (Will Haire, Professor Eileen Evason, Neil Couling and Les Allamby)
The panel included Professor Eileen Evason, Chair of the Joint Standards Committee for the Social Security Agency and Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division; Neil Couling, Director, Department for Work and Pensions; Les Allamby, Director, Law Centre (NI); and Will Haire, Permanent Secretary, DSD. The panel continues to debate the issues and hears feedback from the four information workshops which offered a chance to learn more about and discuss the impact of the proposed reforms on key areas. They focused on Children and families under Universal Credit, Housing, Moving people into employment, and Disabled people and the introduction of Personal Independence Payment.
Let's Talk Welfare Reform with Northern Ireland politicians, Neil Couling DWP, and Professor Ruth Lister
The panel included:
- Neil Couling, Department for Work and Pensions (DWP)
- Professor Ruth Lister
- Alex Maskey MLA, Sinn Féin
- Mark H Durkan, SDLP
- Judith Cochrane, Alliance
- Paula Bradley, DUP
Speaking on the day of the conference Seamus McAleavey, Chief Executive of NICVA, commented
“There is a real fear that the Welfare Reform Bill will have a negative impact on the people of Northern Ireland, and their lives. With the Bill expected to be introduced into the Northern Ireland Assembly this month, this event was extremely timely in opening up the debate.”
To read more comments about the day including those of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland click here.