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Minister must make changes to welfare legislation

12 June, 2007

Sinn Féin West Belfast MLA Fra McCann highlighting the u-turn in the position of Margaret Ritchie has said that the Minster for Social Development must make amendments to the Welfare Reform legislation currently being debated by the Assembly.

Amendments can be tabled until 3pm on Thursday, 14th June.

Speaking at Stormont today Mr McCann said:

"Although, it was given accelerated passage through the social development committee, the bill itself by no means had the full support of the committee. Passage was only ensured after members where informed that peoples benefits would cease if passage was delayed, and a commitment from the minister that sections of the bill would be brought back to committee for discussion.

"Margaret Ritchie, on January 23rd this year voted against the bill. Maybe she could explain what in the bill has changed to warrant this road to Damascus conversion to the welfare reform bill.

"Has the bill been changed to deal with sections on housing benefit, which if passed in its present form could lead to many people falling into debt - and find themselves on the street for feeding their families rather than paying the rent.

"Has she reviewed the section on sanctions, which could have a detrimental impact on people's health and mental well being if the threats to reduce or take away peoples benefits are followed through?

"Can she guarantee that personal advisors have been given the training to assess and make experienced evaluations of those suffering with mental health problems - would she stand over the opinion of a personal advisor or for that matter a G.P in relation to a mental health assessment?

"Has the minister seen the recent statistics which state that less than 40% of employers would employ someone with a mental illness and that 75% say that employing someone with schizophrenia would be impossible or very difficult?

"Can she say if there is any way, she can guarantee that those who most need our protection from discrimination and prejudice will be better off by the passing of sections of this bill or are we in this house today setting people up for a big fall.

"Some years ago it was the norm in this state to pay housing benefit directly to people, why was it changed to direct payments to the landlord - because people fell into debt. People found it more difficult to control their finances, especially those who are already being paid at the poverty level such as income support, or are low earners who may struggle to pay their bills.

"The rush into the passing all sections of this bill would be a mistake; the insistence of the department that people will loose their benefit if we don't complete the bills passage is an attempt to get this through with out any great debate.

"While we must ensure that people's benefits are not delayed we also have a responsibility to ensure that in the rush to get this bill through we don't tramp over the rights of those who expect us to do right by them; those with disabilities, those who suffer from mental illness and those who live in poverty." ENDS

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