Minister of Health, Simon Hamilton, answered questions on behalf of the Social Development Minister during today’s Question Time. Mike Nesbitt MLA took the opportunity to ask what discussions have taken place regarding welfare reform over the summer months. Mr Hamilton revealed that neither the Minister nor any senior officials have had discussions with any other political parties since June 2015 when the different schemes of the reform were presented to the parties at an Executive meeting. Mr Nesbitt criticised the lack of movement in the 13 weeks since that meeting but Mr Hamilton pointed out that, having presented the schemes to the parties for consideration, only one party had come back with a query or recommendation. Mr Hamilton also welcomed the Secretary of State’s indication that the Government is prepared to step in and legislate Welfare Reform in the absence of party agreement as we will soon be in a position in which our IT systems will not be fit to administer benefit payments.
During topical questions Kieran McCarthy MLA continued to talk about the Secretary of State’s speech on Saturday 5th September 2015, saying that it amounted to accepting “full-throated Tory cuts” or “act(ing) responsibly by ensuring that we implement what was agreed at Stormont House.” Mr Hamilton agreed with the Member’s sentiments saying, “The Secretary of State has said what she has said, and I think that it is a game changer. I think that it has unlocked the situation and has made the negotiations that we are entering into not easy but perhaps a little less difficult on this issue. It is up to others to make that decision.” The Minister urged a resolution to the welfare reform conundrum stating, “some now have a choice to make on whether or not to live up to their commitments and responsibilities by moving forward with a form of welfare reform that is more suitable to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland. We have the opportunity, through devolution, to be able to fashion welfare reform — at a cost, yes, but it is an opportunity to fashion welfare reform in a way that better suits our citizens.”
During Question Time the Minister also answered questions on social housing in Omagh, the Mill House Hostel, budget pressures and poverty in Northern Ireland.