British Labour Party warns SF, SDLP on budget stance

Refusal to accept major changes to Northern Ireland’s welfare rules ‘not acceptable’

Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis: Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis: Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA

 

The refusal by Sinn Féin and the SDLP to accept major changes to Northern Ireland’s welfare rules is not acceptable, the British Labour Party has warned.

In unusual rebuke, Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis said both parties are “absolutely right” not to accept the introduction of “the pernicious bedroom tax”.

The tax - properly known as the spare-room subsidy - sees council tenants lose housing benefit if they are deemed to have too many rooms, which can cost some up to £24 per week.

However, Mr Lewis, speaking on the fringes of his party’s conference in Manchester, said it is not acceptable for Sinn Féin and the SDLP to refuse to implement reforms, but not to come up with proposals that would stop Treasury-imposed cuts to NI’s budget.

First Minister Peter Robinson has warned Northern Ireland faces penalties for not implementing welfare reforms passed by Westminster 18 months ago, which could cost £1bn a year.

The disagreement, said Mr Lewis, is “a denial” of the agreements devolving powers to Stormont that UK Westminster-passed welfare reform would be enforced in NI, or else there would be financial penalties.

“Making no progress on welfare has financial implications. It is not a cost-free choice: the impact on health, ducation and other frontline services is going to become extremely challenging,” he said.

His remarks, made alongside SDLP leader Alisdair McDonnell and Sinn Féin MP Paul Maskey at a breakfast held by the NI peace and reconciliation group, CHAMP, provoked the irritation of both of them.

“Good leadership is mobilising your own supporters and your own base and delivering on bread-and-butter issues,” said Mr Lewis, “Great leadership is about being willing to walk in the shoes of your former foes.

“It is also sometimes being willing to say really tough things to your own supporters. That’s great leadership. What NI desperately needs at the moment is great leadership.”

In response, Mr Maskey accused Mr Lewis of acting “as a cheerleader for Tory cuts, I don’t think that that is acceptable, I don’t think that that is good”.

If implemented, the full package of welfare reforms would see 242,000 families in NI losing benefits and cost the NI economy £750m a year: “That would have a massive detrimental effect,” he said.

Mr McDonnell said NI politics has “gone as far as it can go and needs an injection of external support” from Dublin, London and Washington.