Northern Ireland news

PLATFORM: Nichola Mallon

SDLP deputy leader Nichola Mallon, pictured with colleagues Colin McGrath and Dolores Kelly. Picture by David Young/PA Wire

IN five months' time, some 34,000 social housing tenants across the north are going to be hit with the Bedroom Tax because they are deemed to have more bedrooms than they need.

They will be forced to pay this tax whether they can afford it or not and they will be forced to pay it even if they try to downsize but can't through no fault of their own, because they are caught in the double trap of the severe shortage and unsuitability of the social housing stock here.

We know the impact on families, communities and the economy will be devastating. There are already over 200 households paying the Bedroom Tax despite assurances to the contrary from other parties, and their rent arrears have quadrupled.

Come March, when this number rises to 34,000 households, we will see unprecedented levels of debt, despair and homelessness.

We know Northern Ireland has unique circumstances, not least given our segregated and unsuitable housing stock, our higher rates of disability and larger families.

This demands a specific social security response; a reality recognised in a recent joint report by MPs from across the UK sitting on the Work and Pensions Committee and Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Placards won't protect people. Stunt politics won't deliver the solutions families facing this cliff edge need.

What people want to know is - what are their politicians going to do to protect them from this economic crisis and the tsunami of crises hitting and about to hit them.

There has been some confusion created that welfare protections can be extended without an Assembly.

The fact is that if low income and disabled people are to be protected, they need legislation, and for legislation we need an Assembly.

I don't believe any party in Northern Ireland wants to see families being pushed over the cliff edge. What these families want to see is courageous political leadership that acts in the common good and puts their needs first.

An Assembly could legislate to protect families and disabled people from welfare cuts and it could do so much more. It could take decisive steps to tackle poverty, empower citizens and transform our economy. We only have to look to the Scottish parliament to see what can be achieved when politics works for people.

The stand-off of 1,000 days cannot continue but the uncomfortable reality for many of us is that the restoration of an Executive and Assembly can only happen if the DUP and Sinn Féin agree. We will not be able to secure a new government while they remain intractably divided.

We have however set out a pathway, through reform of the petition of concern or, failing agreement, a time-bound suspension of its use, which could see the restoration of the Assembly without anyone being humiliated and in a way which would allow differences and difficulties to be settled and solved democratically.

The answer is there. It is within reach. Parties can choose to take it.

If they choose not to, then we have no option but to be forced to look to Westminster to protect families from this catastrophic cliff edge and hardship.

Time is running out. We cannot sit back and do nothing. That is why the SDLP has written to the Secretary of State proposing that in the continuing absence of an Assembly, Westminster must legislate and fund an extended welfare mitigations package; something as a pro-devolutionist and an Irish nationalist 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement I never thought we would have to do.

But I still fight to keep optimistic. I hope that the sense of responsibility is now so great that parties are willing to take tough decisions and reach an honourable compromise in the days ahead that will allow us to get back to doing our job, serving people, protecting the most vulnerable and transforming our economy and society. Isn't that the whole point of politics?

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