Councillor McGinley welcomed the assurances by officers at the recent Rates meeting that additional resources could be found to assist advice services dealing with appeals and tribunals. He stated that this was an example of the practical leadership provided by Sinn Féin and followed on from the £585m secured in relation to providing protection and mitigation against the worst excesses of the Conservative Government’s attack on welfare. He noted that Sinn Féin had negotiated those protections when Welfare Reform was implemented in Northern Ireland. He further stated that SDLP had dismissed the mitigations and had nothing further to offer at that time. He expressed surprise that the SDLP had asked what Sinn Féin were doing in respect of securing future mitigation.
Continuing, he stated that the SDLP had now entered a marriage of convenience with Fianna Fail which on its’ own and through partnership with Fine Gael had consistently slashed public spending and welfare protections. He referred to Councillor O’Reilly’s nomination by Councillor Robinson to the Taskforce and noted that Councillors Donnelly and Robinson did not vote in favour of the creation of the Taskforce and queried in the interests’ of clarity if Councillor O’Reilly would be taking his place on the Taskforce.
In response, Councillor O’Reilly stated that he sought clarity regarding the principles of the Taskforce as Council had supported the motion to oppose all cuts and if that was not the foundation of the Taskforce, he would not be taking his place.
Councillor Cusack referred to remarks made by Councillor McGinley and stated that Sinn Féin, the DUP and the Alliance voted for Welfare Reform and budgetary cuts. She referred to the mitigation package and stated that Sinn Féin had still not answered her question regarding securing mitigation after March 2020. She described the press articles released by Sinn Féin condemning the welfare cuts as hypocritical adding that the reality was they had voted for them to be implemented in Northern Ireland.
Councillor Gallagher stated that Sinn Féin had accepted the mitigation package in order to bed in Conservative Government policies. He referred to the Auditor’s Report which stated that £136m was not availed of and the report concluded that those cuts would not save money and were not likely to save money and suggested that Sinn Féin change its policy.
Councillor Donnelly stated that he wished to clarify a matter for Councillor McGinley. He stated that the taskforce would include members of Sinn Fein and the DUP which was an affront as they had voted in favour of Welfare Reform.
Councillor Logue stated that in 2014, five main parties committed to adhere to the parity principles regarding Welfare Reform and agreed on a strong mitigation package of £560m over six years being brought forward. She outlined that after some debate the Fresh Start Agreement was introduced which secured £580m over four years. She referred to the Evason report of 2015 which had formed the basis for the £580m which had been broadly welcomed by the SDLP. She stated that although SDLP opposed Welfare Reform, there were no amendments to the report by the SDLP to oppose it at that time. She suggested that the SDLP take a refresher course on how Welfare Reform was first introduced. She referred to the Department for Social Development Minister Margaret Ritchie who was also a Member of the SDLP who had been involved in the introduction of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and ATOS, who were responsible for ‘fit to work’ tests in 2007.
Councillor Tierney referred to remarks made by the previous speaker and stated that the Welfare Reform Bill which she referred to was a completely different bill with the Labour Government. He outlined that there were 27 amendments made to the Welfare Reform Bill and SDLP were working to change the Bill. However Sinn Féin became partners with the DUP and the Alliance Party therefore SDLP voted against it. He stated that Sinn Fein had to take notice of the effect of that Bill on the people of Northern Ireland.
Councillor Duffy stated that the Conservative Government were implementing Welfare Reform regardless of the Sinn Féin vote, therefore a mitigation package of £580m was secured. She further stated that the SDLP had now aligned with Fianna Fail, a party responsible for making devastating welfare cuts throughout the Republic of Ireland and pointed out to Councillor Tierney that the SDLP was now in partnership with a right-wing party.
Councillor Robinson referred to the slashing of 20,000 frontline service jobs which had a devastating effect and this happened as result of the Fresh Start Agreement which Sinn Féin signed up to.
Councillor O’Reilly reiterated that he sought clarity regarding the principles of the taskforce as the forefront for the group had to be the corporate position of Council to oppose welfare reform and which also called for the reversal of the cuts.
In response, the Director of Health and Community outlined that the first meeting of the taskforce would agree the terms of reference and also the agenda going forward. She said that the Chair of the Health and Community Committee had stated that Committee understood the corporate position of Council and would therefore proceed on that basis.
The Mayor then called for a short recess.