Agenda item

Establishment of a Taskforce on Welfare Reform


The Head of Community Development and Leisure presented the above report, previously circulated to Members.  The purpose of the report was to recommend the establishment of a Taskforce on Welfare Reform for the Council area and the nomination of Elected Members to the Taskforce.


Councillor McGinley stated that he endorsed the recommendation which was consistent with Council’s ongoing support for advice service provision.  He noted that Derry City and Strabane District Council already provided over £300,000 of mitigations for the work carried out by advice service providers and that Sinn Fein had recently asked Council officers to identify any additional resources particularly regarding appeals and tribunals which had created additional pressure for those frontline services.  He referred to the Auditor General’s comments regarding the importance of the mitigation measures which were negotiated primarily by Sinn Fein as part of the Fresh Start Agreement and that the recommendations in that report presented Council with the opportunity to further assist those most in need. 


Councillor McGinley was nominated to represent Sinn Fein on the Taskforce.


Councillor O’Reilly stated that this had originated from a motion he presented to Council on 25 October 2018.  He expressed concern that the recommendation within the report did not identify the corporate position of Council as stated in the Motion:


‘Given this Council’s corporate position is to not implement cuts this Council calls for the immediate halting of the introduction of Universal Credit.


This Council will investigate, and report to Members, its capacity to help those already affected by this policy.


Further this Council will develop a strategy that will allow us to enhance our corporate position.’


He stated that Council was are not recommended to mitigate the cuts but to oppose them.  He further stated that the Taskforce would be expected to help those affected by Universal Credit as recommended within the Motion, however first and foremost Council must oppose these cuts and call for them to be abolished immediately.  He suggested that a lobby group be built into the framework of the Taskforce and a campaign launched to ensure that Council is forceful in carrying out the recommendations. 


Councillor Tierney stated that it was an extremely sad state of affairs that such a Taskforce was needed to try and help those affected by the worst type of welfare reform.  He referred to comments made by Councillor Reilly at a previous meeting that mitigation measures would not have been needed if Westminster had not been given full control of our system by Sinn Fein, DUP and the Alliance Party.   He stated that this is where those decisions have brought us and unfortunately Council now need to set up a Taskforce to look at how people can be helped and supported.   He referred to recent comments made on social media regarding the Auditor General’s report and the good work that Sinn Fein were involved in regarding mitigations and asked what would happen from March next year with no government or mitigations in place.  He queried how Sinn Fein was going to protect people unless they returned to government.


Councillor Tierney was nominated as the SDLP representative to sit on the Taskforce.


Councillor Gallagher stated that when Sinn Fein voted for the legislative consent to allow the implementation of welfare reform these issues had been identified.  He referred to Sinn Fein’s nomination to the Taskforce given that they had voted for welfare reform.   He stated that people were facing real hardship with an increase in people using local foodbanks.  He referred to the Auditor General’s report and noted that £136m of the mitigation package had not been allocated.  He stated that the funding should have went to help those on benefits and also the working poor, however they were denied it.  He noted that the amount averaged out to the city and district was approximately £12m which was taken out of the local economy.   He noted that the Auditor General had stated in his conclusions that welfare reform was not value for money, nor was it likely to be.  He felt that Councillor McGinley had been keen to nominate himself to the Taskforce in an effort for his party to control decisions and take credit.  He added that if the Taskforce did not list the abolition of Universal Credit at the top of its remit it would have absolutely no value. 


Alderman Thompson stated that the recommendation was to approve the establishment of and nominate Members onto a Taskforce.  He stated that a proposal had been put forward and seconded for the establishment of a Taskforce.


He then nominated Alderman McClintock as representative for the DUP and Alderman Hussey as representative for the UUP to sit on the Taskforce.


Councillor Donnelly referred to the hypocrisy of some Members of the Committee.  He referred to comments made by Councillor McGinley regarding more money being available for advice services to sort out a situation that Sinn Fein had voted for.  He felt that the DUP should attend a forthcoming conflict of interest training session as they had also voted for welfare reform then nominated Members onto the Taskforce.  He emphasised that the corporate position of Council was not to implement cuts and for the immediate halting of the introduction of Universal Credit.  He stated that Gary Middleton MLA remarked that the DUP had made the hard decision to vote for the implementation of welfare reform and would stand over it which he felt at least had an element of honesty.  


Alderman McClintock stated that she had found some of the previous comments quite insulting.   She stated that the DUP will take part on the Taskforce along with the other statutory agencies to see what could be undertaken to mitigate the impact that welfare reform has had on local people.  She reiterated that the DUP would take their place and not be told by any Member of the Independent grouping or other parties that the DUP should not be there.


Councillor McGinley noted that the Tory Government had intended to implement the cuts into Northern Ireland which would have happened with or without protection.  He stated that Sinn Fein was given a choice to agree to the cuts with or without protection, therefore they negotiated £580m through the Fresh Start Agreement.  He noted that the Auditor General’s report clearly indicated Sinn Fein’s position on the matter.   He stated that Sinn Fein provided leadership whilst others sat on the side lines and would make no apologies for securing the mitigations that protected thousands of families.  He queried comments made by Councillor Gallagher regarding control and sought clarification on his statement.


The Chair reminded Members that Committee had been asked to endorse the recommendation within the report and to nominate Members to sit on the Taskforce and asked them to make comments relevant to that.


Councillor Robinson stated that it was clear where the cut had originated from and there were now attempts to defend the indefensible.  He referred to membership of the Taskforce which he felt was not broad enough and noted that there were groups within the community that had a wealth of experience in providing advice on those particular issues which he felt could be included.  He said that Councillor O’Reilly’s remarks regarding the direction of the Taskforce should be included within the recommendations going forward as the report did not fullyreflect the original motion that was passed at Council.


He nominated Councillor O’Reilly to sit on the Taskforce


Councillor P Kelly queried if the statutory agencies had been approached regarding the setting up of the Taskforce as some may have a conflict of interest.


In response to a query by Councillor P Kelly, the Head of Community Development and Leisure stated that a similar project has begun in Newry and that the Taskforce would be based on that approach.  He stated that the majority of the statutory agencies would be involved and were awaiting nominations from two other statutory agencies.


Alderman McClintock stated that it had been made clear at the Mayor’s Initiative that people had to come together to decide on the best way forward and that Members should be discussing the issues and not be going into meetings with a pre-conceived agenda.  


Councillor Donnelly stated that the matter originated from a Motion presented to Council from Councillor O’Reilly and not the Mayor’s Initiative.


The Chair stated that the corporate position of Council was that Council oppose the cuts and the Taskforce would reflect the corporate position of Council.  He further stated that whilst Council may be opposed to the cuts it could not stop them being implemented, however discussions could take place on how to support those affected.


Councillor Donnelly outlined that the motion had called for the immediate halting of Universal Credit and queried if that was the position of those nominated to sit on the Taskforce.


Alderman McClintock referred to 2.1 of the report; ‘The need for a Taskforce has been identified as a result of the recent Mayoral Initiative involving Housing Associations and Advice Agencies on the impact of the rollout of Universal Credit.’ and stated that the Taskforce had to come together to discuss those issues with the other agencies whether there is a corporate position or not.


The Chair asked Members to vote on the recommendations within the report.


In response to a query by Councillor Tierney, the Chair explained that it was quite obvious from the discussion that there was not a unanimous agreement for the recommendation, therefore a vote would be taken. 


After a request for clarification regarding the recommendation from Alderman Thompson, the Chair stated that Members would be voting on the recommendation stated within the report.


After voting by a show of hands the results were as follows;


                        For the Recommendations – 10; Against – 2; Abstentions – 0 and


The Committee


Recommended       That (i) Members approve the establishment of a Taskforce to monitor and report on the impact of welfare reform for the Council area and (ii) Aldermen Hussey and McClintock and Councillors McGinley, O’Reilly and Tierney were nominated as Members to the Taskforce.


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