I went today to an illuminating session at the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, where Dr John McPeake, former Chief Executive of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, explained about benefits in Northern Ireland. Unlike the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly has in principle the power to determine laws and rules on benefits: but they seem reluctant to do anything about it. The guiding principle is referred to as ‘parity’. The law says this:
The Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Minister having responsibility for social security (“the Northern Ireland Minister”) shall from time to time consult one another with a view to securing that, to the extent agreed between them, the legislation to which this section applies provides single systems of social security, child support and pensions for the United Kingdom.
The Department for Social Development describes it in these terms:
the long standing principle of parity dictates that an individual in Northern Ireland will receive the same benefits, under the same conditions, as an individual elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Those statements seem to me to say quite different things. The first says that the two legislatures will consult in order to maintain a common framework. The second one says that the benefits have to be identical. If that was the case, it could hardly be called a devolved power.
The Northern Ireland Assembly are heavily constrained by Treasury rules, and I understand that they don’t want to incur hefty bills or fines for wandering from the True Path as defined by London. At the same time, there are possibilities open to them – things they could do without committing themselves to major expense or upsetting the applecart. Let me suggest a small measure. A goodly proportion of the claimants of ESA are older workers who have effectively retired through disability. If they were classified in those terms – the equivalent of a førtidspension – there wouldn’t be a question of work-related activity or reassessment. This is completely compatible with the existing system, and the cost of introducing it, in marginal terms, would be negligible – it might even save administrative costs. Northern Ireland has the legal authority to do this; Scotland doesn’t.