In 2015, Sinn Féin and the DUP voted to allow Welfare Reform into the North. But now they are trying to wash their hands of its impact. Michael Collins gives his take.
As the brutal reality of benefit cuts hits home in areas like West Belfast, many of the parties who voted for Welfare Reform are now desperately trying to distance themselves from its impact, even going so far as to claim they oppose PIP and Universal Credit. It’s a classic case of political spin, as the big parties desperately to try to complicate the origins of Welfare Reform. But the truth is a simple and age old story. One of robbing the poor, to pay the rich.
Both Sinn Féin and the DUP were united when it came to implementing the Welfare Reform Bill in 2015. On Monday 16th November 2015, during a special sitting of the Assembly devoted to Welfare, 70 MLA’s from Sinn Féin and the DUP, with the support of the Alliance party, combined to vote in favour of the Welfare Reform Bill; directly paving the way for PIP, Universal Credit and the Bedroom Tax to be implemented in the North.
Robbing the Poor
Sinn Féin say there was no option but to bring in Welfare Reform. This claim is utterly bogus. Universal Credit, PIP and the Bedroom Tax could never have been legislated for without the backing of the two main Assembly parties in the North. Had Sinn Féin or the DUP refused and initiated a petition of concern, the Tories held no legislative power over welfare here. The very fact Tory ministers have been unable to legislate for anything over the last two years is vindication of this. Had Sinn Féin refused to vote for the Welfare Reform Bill, the bill would have fell, and the old system would’ve remained in place. While not perfect, it was a lot more humane than the one we currently have.
Sinn Féin now cry opposition to the very proposals they voted through. They have conveniently forgotten the justification given for welfare cuts back in 2015; namely that it was in exchange for powers to reduce corporation tax. A massive tax cut for big business, lower corporation tax would’ve seen a loss of £400million from the block grant, and to pay for this, the Tories demanded Welfare Reform be implemented.
Rather than challenge this nonsense, the Stormont establishment abided. And instead of standing up for the vulnerable and low paid, both Sinn Féin and the DUP thought it more politically expedient to strike a deal to get Stormont back up and running. This rotten ‘Fresh Start’ agreement as it was called, not only drastically cut services, but brought us Welfare Reform, PIP and Universal Credit, as well as the potential for tax breaks for big business. Thatcherism 101 in other words.
It is a complete falsehood when politicians tell us they “had no choice” but to implement benefit cuts. The choice was clear as day. Rather than challenge the Tories, Sinn Féin and the DUP chose to do their dirty work.
At the time, they sold it to us as a good deal. But everyone in the community I come from and beyond knows the welfare system they agreed to is a disaster. Even Tory Minister Amber Rudd recently admitted Universal Credit is leading directly to an increase in the number of people relying on foodbanks to survive. Advice NI has described the new benefits system as “unfit for purpose” while a high court judge has deemed Capita’s assessment process “blatantly discriminatory” against those with disabilities. On top of all this, the public service ombudsman in the North is now to investigate the Department of Communities for suspected “systematic maladministration” in its implantation of PIP.
Is it any wonder Sinn Féin are now claiming they “opposed” these decisions? Welfare Reform has been an unprecedented disaster. But the reality is, both Sinn Féin and the DUP knew exactly what Welfare Reform entailed when they voted through the bill in Stormont. There was no ambiguity. Welfare Reform had already been rolled out in England and Wales, amid a hail of controversy. And the same practices which caused uproar in the UK have been repeated here. With Universal Credit, only 82 per cent of people here have had their money paid on time, and over half of claimants have had to draw loans from the Department in order to avoid the 6 week waiting period. The online system has been a shambles for anyone who struggles with computers.
As for PIP, patients with terminal illness continue to be dragged through shambolic and degrading assessments by private company Capita. Imagine having a terminal illness, and being forced to go in front of a panel hearing to determine whether you are entitled to sickness payments benefits. A despicable state of affairs.
On top of this, those who suffer lifelong disabilities are dragged in front of PIP assessment panels year on year, to be re-assessed, rather than be entitled to lifelong DLA as under the old system.
And time and time again we have witnessed people with serious disabilities or illnesses—such as Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis, and even terminal cancer—being denied their basic sickness benefits. In fact, a freedom of information request from the Multiple Sclerosis society found that one third of applicants with MS who applied form PIP were denied. A shocking indictment of a system which is set-up to fail people with disabilities.
And the truth is, the system is doing exactly what it has been designed to do: kick people off benefits that they are rightly entitled to. It is a conscious attempt to undo the safety net the welfare state provides for the sick and the vulnerable.
Part of the justification Sinn Féin gave for signing up to Welfare Reform was that they had secured a “mitigation package” to help those worst affected by these measures. These mitigations were never adequate, and were little more than a pathetic attempt to sell this rotten deal to their supporters, many of whom bear the brunt of welfare cuts.
Not only has the vast majority of mitigation money remained unspent, but it is due to run out in March 2020. What little money was set aside, was never enough to cover the suffering caused by the enormity of welfare cuts.
Sinn Féin and the DUP picked corporations and the rich over ordinary people. That’s the plain truth—our local politicians gave in to the Tory welfare cuts, so the Tories would give them the power to cut tax on the rich.
Now thousands of people are facing the grim reality of foodbanks, benefit sanctions and poverty as a result. We shouldn’t let Sinn Féin or the DUP off the hook.