Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, addressed concerns around the stalling Welfare Reform Bill during today’s Question Time. Difficulties surrounding issues such as the proposed bedroom tax have seen the legislation pulled by the Social Development Minister. The UK’s Work and Pensions Minister, Michael Penning, has added to the pressure by saying that Northern Ireland faces a penalty charge of £5m a month from January 2014 if there has still been no resolution. While the deputy First Minister conceded that he is “conscious of any funding that might be withdrawn from the block grant”, he refused to be unnerved by the significant pressure coming from the Treasury. The main concern is to “protect the most vulnerable members of (our) society” by ensuring that we come out with the best possible Welfare Reform system. He pointed to the difficulties that Westminster has faced in implementing Welfare Reform saying, “I am not sure why people are in such a rush for us to get it wrong as well”.
Junior Minister, Jennifer McCann, provided Kieran McCarthy with an assessment of the implementation of the proposals in ‘Together: Building a United Community’, the strategy created to improve community relations and bring our society together. In response to Mr McCarthy’s suggestion that the department might feel “ashamed” at the lack of progress made in the six months since the announcement of the strategy, Ms McCann disagreed saying “substantive progress” has been made on many of the initiatives and that “the Member has to appreciate that this is a very large project that we are embarking on”.
During topical questions, Basil McCrea asked the deputy First Minister for his thoughts on devolving further financial powers to Northern Ireland. Mr McGuinness outlined his commitment to seeing the devolution of Corporation Tax powers highlighting the benefits this could have in terms of foreign investment and job creation, declaring that “it will be a massive step forward for our administration”. He acknowledged the different party stances concerned with the devolution of certain other financial powers saying that these could be addressed through cross party dialogue.
Also discussed were foreign ventures in the US and China, Shackleton barracks and the upcoming flag protests in Belfast city centre.