Mr. Dave Anderson (Blaydon): I thank the Minister for bringing this order to the House, but it is a shame that the matter could not have been resolved in Northern Ireland. The order is the result of months of negotiations and an attempt to break budgetary deadlock and avoid the potential collapse of the Stormont institutions. I and many hon. Members were glad to see a deal reached and credit the work of all those involved: the parties in Northern Ireland, the Irish Government and many Members of this House.?
I have been involved in Northern Ireland affairs for almost 30 years - within the trade union movement, as a member of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, and latterly as a vice-chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. In the union work in which I was involved in the 1990s, when we worked hard to deliver the peace process, we coined the phrase, "We are a non-partisan agent for change." It is that phrase that has guided my work inside and outside this House, and it is with that attitude that I want to address the matter before us today.
The Labour party takes great pride in the role it played in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland, working with good people on the ground and around the world on the Good Friday agreement, the "Fresh Start" agreement and much in between. We have always worked in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. What is paramount today is ongoing peace and stability in Northern Ireland, and Labour will work with the Government and all interested parties both in this House and in Northern Ireland on maintaining it. I am sure that that sentiment will be echoed by Members in the House today.
The "Fresh Start" agreement included legislative consent from the Northern Ireland Assembly to allow Parliament to enact legislation on its behalf. I respect the legitimacy of the Assembly to do that, but I am sad that it had to. Today's order seeks to extend, among other measures, the welfare reform Acts of 2012 and 2016 to Northern Ireland. The Government's welfare reform programme has devastated the lives of far too many vulnerable people across Great Britain, plunging them into financial distress. In the hour before this debate, we heard about the tax credit fiasco. Real people are suffering as a result of measures brought in by this Government over the past six years. I and many other Members from across the country see the effects of the cuts in our constituency surgeries.
This legislation is in the interests of ongoing stability in Northern Ireland, so we will not stand in its way, but the Labour party will never stop showing its ongoing opposition to the Tory austerity agenda, which we have consistently railed against in this House over recent years. We have opposed cuts to tax credits that hit families in the pocket, changes to ESA that hurt those suffering from disease and injury, a benefits caps that does not rise with inflation, cuts to council tax credits, and cuts to crisis loans. We must also never forget that 42% of those deemed fit for work by Atos were actually declared unfit on appeal - a damning indictment of the Conservative party. I could go on and on.
Welfare reform was intended by this Government to impact hard on the UK's most vulnerable people and to force them to work when they are not well equipped to do so. The desire to inflict on the people of Northern Ireland the same disastrous policy that has blighted the lives of so many of our constituents right across Great Britain is a desperate tactic from a Government more concerned with ideology than compassion. The use of austerity as a weapon of policy was and still is a crude and blunt instrument. The role of austerity in the now hardly mentioned long-term economic plan will be the epitaph of our dear departed friend from Witney and his sidekick from Tatton. Saying "We will make work pay" rings hollow for those forced to look for work while struggling with long-term illness, injury or disease. The truth is that this Government want to make it impossible for anyone to survive on benefits, which is hugely unfair to those struggling from day to day through no fault of their own.
There may be some who say that the changes should apply to Northern Ireland because they apply across the rest of Great Britain, but, to put it simply, two wrongs do not make a right. The Conservative party clearly believes in the equalisation of misery. Labour believes in the alleviation of misery. When we get back into power, we will not be attacking the sick, the young, the elderly and the disabled or calling them scroungers and skivers. We will not be declaring war on anyone whose curtains are not open by a specific time every day. We will not be making the poor pay for the failings of the rich and those who dabble in money markets. It is interesting that the "Fresh Start" agreement includes measures to mitigate the ongoing austerity regime. While I welcome such measures, does that not show that these changes should not be made in the first place? It is accepted that problems are going to be piled on people who do not deserve them.
We have been advised that the cuts will take £750 million out of the Northern Ireland economy and that the loss per working age adult, at £650 per year, is 38% higher than the UK average. In Northern Ireland, it was recently announced that the Michelin factory in Ballymena will close, resulting in the loss of 860 jobs, that another 250 jobs will be cut in the Caterpillar factory in Newtownabbey and that there will be job losses at Bombardier. Those men and women will find less support than ever and this order will do nothing but compound their difficulties as they try to find their way through the world of unemployment.
As the Minister mentioned, Northern Ireland has some of the highest levels of long-term unemployment in the United Kingdom. Almost one in 10 adults of working age is in receipt of disability living allowance - almost twice the national average - and so will be hit more than those in other parts of the UK. Belfast will be damaged most by the reforms. Poverty is a genuine everyday reality for many in Northern Ireland, and the reforms will serve no purpose other than to compound such difficulties. The cuts will hurt the vulnerable. They hit the disabled, families and children and Labour cannot be complicit in that.
We have to accept that despite the huge opposition to these so called reforms, they have been enforced on the people of Great Britain. But that does not make them any more palatable and it does not give any more reason also to force the changes on the people of Northern Ireland. We have to accept the very real circumstances of its history and of the current difficulties the people of Northern Ireland face. According to figures from the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, since 1998 more people have taken their own life in Northern Ireland than died throughout the troubles, with research showing that during the recession those figures increased. The suicide rate in Northern Ireland is 70% higher than the UK average. Forcing the vulnerable in society further into despair will do nothing to defeat this problem.
We support any work aimed at maintaining the long-term stability of the institutions in Northern Ireland, as those of us who remember the days of direct rule can attest; we will say how important it is to make sure that these institutions not only carry on, but flourish and improve. On that basis, we will not oppose this order today, but that should in no way be taken as our condoning what is being done by this Government to the people of Northern Ireland.
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