During today’s Question Time, Minister for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, suggested that some Members may be “financially illiterate”, failing to realise the harsh realities of budget cuts. Over the current financial year the Department for Social Development faces cuts of up to £29m and, as a result of penalties for failing to agree welfare reform, a potential £200m a year will be lost. As a result of the cuts the Minister fears that “some of the most vulnerable in our society — people in areas of deprivation and suffering from individual and family vulnerabilities — will bear the brunt of this”. However he maintained that he “will continue to ensure that protecting the vulnerable is at the core of what I do”. When Leslie Cree asked why the Minister does not bring the Welfare Reform Bill back to the Floor of the House, Mr McCausland explained that doing so would be “the worst thing of all” and result in a much more difficult situation as it would bring us back to square one – Welfare Reform needs to come forward “as a Northern Ireland Executive package rather than simply being put onto the Floor and thrown out there”.
The Minister also discussed the large number of households currently living in fuel poverty. 42% of households currently spend 10% of their income on fuel and a worrying 33,000 households are spending 25% or more on fuel. The Minister pointed out that, while high, these figures would be even worse if not for the work of his Department. The boiler replacement scheme and proposed energy efficiency scheme are helping address the imbalance. Mr McCausland again highlighted that budget cuts are affecting how much he can do but assured that “I am committed to working in a collaborative and inclusive way, and I am always keen to explore all options and new initiatives to provide assistance to the most vulnerable households”.
During the topical question period the Minister answered questions on the report on the intimidation of Councillor Jenny Palmer, his relationship with the Social Development Committee, the Building Successful Communities programme and the racial equality strategy.