Shameful welfare cuts agenda needs to be rejected - Alex Maskey MLA
A chairde as we gather at this Ard Fheis, those we represent face many challenges.
Indeed many ordinary people across this island are being punished and penalised by austerity measures imposed by the British and Irish governments. And worse, we also face attack on basic welfare entitlements. Both governments rather than seeking to grow the economy are flat-lining the economy - driving even more people out of work, into poverty or onto the emigration trail of tears.
Other comrades will address the broader economic issues during this debate while I focus my remarks primarily on the welfare cuts being imposed on the north by Westminster.
Sinn Féin is opposed to this cuts agenda north and south - in the Oireacthas and in the Assembly as our opponents in the Dail and media know full well.
Let us remind them that the Irish government makes it’s own choices to cut welfare protection as does the British government, which then imposes those cuts on the people in the North.
Sinn Féin in the Executive and Assembly has led the opposition to the British attack on welfare and those most in need, but we have also introduced a range of measures to tackle disadvantage and poverty.
Irish government representatives should support us - not make snide and erroneous political comments designed only to shield their own embarrassment.
Since the social development minister introduced the welfare reform bill into the Assembly our party has made it crystal clear directly to him and the British government we are opposed to key elements of this legislation.
We will oppose the bedroom tax which would penalise families who simply cannot afford to pay and especially when there is no suitable alternative accommodation for them.
This tax would penalise families who generally live in modest 2/3 bedroom houses – simply because the Tories say these homes are too big for them.
We are opposed to sanctions which could remove people’s entitlements for up to three years. This sanctions regime will penalise many lone parents who are unable either to access or afford child care - or indeed penalise claimants who officials deem not trying hard enough to secure a job – even though there are precious few available.
We are opposed to the regressive policy of making women financially dependent on their partner under universal credit - as it takes benefits from purse to wallet.
So we will fight for the right of women to retain access to the purse strings through provision for split payments. We want to ensure that those who wish, will receive their benefits not once a month but twice monthly to help them manage their income.
We want to ensure that those who wish, can have their benefits paid to the main carer rather than all of it payable to the ‘head of the household’ - usually the man.
We will defend the right of disabled people and those who are ill to be assessed for work by qualified medical professionals and that medical evidence determines fitness - as opposed to private companies working solely for profit.
Remember, this British government has made it clear, the changes to disability benefits is about cutting 20% of the budget. And unfortunately, as was predicted, there is mounting evidence of targets for staff in job centres in England to reject a percentage of claims for a range of benefits. This is despite promises that such targets would not be set.
The welfare legislation will be debated in the Assembly over the coming weeks but Minister McCausland must step up to the mark to protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Sinn Féin has made it absolutely clear that this bill, as it stands, is unacceptable and we have urged the minister and his party leadership to stand up for those who are most in need by rejecting this shameful cuts agenda.