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A Fresh Start: the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan and the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill 2015-16 [Bill 99]

Published Friday, November 20, 2015

The Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill is part of a process to stabilise the political institutions in Northern Ireland. It stems from a package agreed between the UK and Irish Governments and the largest Northern Ireland parties: the Fresh Start agreement. This paper gives a guide to the Bill, and to the agreement.

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The Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill is an enabling measure providing a power to:

  • Legislate for welfare reform in Northern Ireland; and
  • Confer powers on the Secretary of State or the Department for Social Development in Northern Ireland to make further provision by regulations and order

The Bill will be followed by an Order in Council based on the Northern Ireland Assembly Welfare Reform Bill. It will contain regulation making powers and measures to implement welfare reform in Northern Ireland. £585m will be allocated from Executive funds to top-up UK welfare arrangements over a four year period. This will be targeted at topping-up tax credits and ensuring tenants are not affected by the social sector size criteria ("bedroom tax", "Removal of Spare Room Subsidy").

The Bill fulfils part of the Fresh Start agreement. The political situation in Northern Ireland deteriorated during 2015: the Fresh Start agreement as a whole is an effort to overcome these difficulties. They initially manifested in delays over implementation of the Stormont House Agreement of December 2014. This had been intended to achieve progress on contentious issues such as parades, flags and dealing with the past, and to enable UK-wide welfare reforms to take place in Northern Ireland while offsetting their impact and yet still achieving a balanced budget. Implementation of this slowed when the Northern Ireland legislation on welfare reform was blocked in the Assembly. Several deadlines for progress on the Stormont House Agreement were missed.

In August 2015 the Police Service of Northern Ireland stated that IRA members may have been involved in the murder of a former IRA member, Kevin McGuigan Snr, who was himself a suspect in the murder of another former IRA member, Gerard Davison. This implied official recognition that the IRA still existed.

The Ulster Unionist Party left the Executive and Democratic Unionist Party Ministers adopted a strategy of rolling resignations.

The UK Government commissioned an independent assessment of paramilitary organisations in September 2015, which reported in October 2015. It concluded that all the main paramilitary groups operating during the Troubles still existed, and that members still engaged in violence, but that their leaderships were committed to political objectives achieved through peaceful means.

The DUP returned to its normal role in the Executive after this report.

Talks were also set up between the parties to the Stormont House process, the two Governments and the five largest parties in the Assembly, which are those entitled to positions in the Executive.

After ten weeks an agreement was reached, A Fresh Start: the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan, published on 17 November 2015.

This includes measures on welfare and paramilitarism, the core of the impasse, and a commitment to a start date and rate for the devolution of corporation tax (April 2018 at 12.5%). It also includes material on other aspects of the Stormont House Agreement, including a draft Northern Ireland Assembly bill to reduce the number of Members for each constituency from six to five.

 

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7389

Authors: Paul Bowers; Wendy Wilson; Steven Kennedy; Hazel Armstrong; Elizabeth Parkin

Topics: Benefits administration, Benefits policy, Devolution, Housing benefits, Northern Ireland Assembly, Sickness, disability and carers' benefits, Working age benefits

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