Page last updated at 13:17 GMT, Monday, 20 February 2012

Social Security (Loss of Benefit) (Amendment) Regulations (NI) 2011

People who make an honest mistake in applying for welfare payments have nothing to fear from new fraud regulations, MLAs were told, on 20 February 2012.

Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland was introducing the Social Security (Loss of Benefit) (Amendment) Regulations to the house.

He explained that the regulations would allow for the reduction or withdrawal of some benefits for four weeks from people who had committed social security fraud for the first time.

Mr McCausland said the regulations would ensure that people in Northern Ireland were treated in the same way as people in the rest of the UK, known as the system of parity.

"It is acknowledged that parity has served Northern Ireland well," he added.

The minister gave some examples of fraud, including people who worked but claimed jobseekers allowance and those who claimed for living alone but had a partner living with them.

Mr McCausland said he understood completely the concerns that had been expressed by the social development committee.

"Those people who made a genuine mistake have nothing to fear from these regulations," he added.

Committee chair Alex Maskey of Sinn Fein explained that the committee had voted in favour of the regulations, although his own party had voted against it.

Mr Maskey said people found guilty of fraud could face a form of double jeopardy, having to pay back the money, facing prosecution and then having benefits reduced.

Gregory Campbell of the DUP observed that 10 years ago fraud was costing the department £60m a year. This had now reduced to around £20m a year.

"I think everyone supports the crackdown on fraud," Mr Campbell said.

"The nub of the issue is parity," he added.

The UUP's Michael Copeland described benefit fraud as "a despicable crime".

He expressed concerns about the regulations but said they "paled into insignificance" compared to the matter of parity.

Mark Durkan of the SDLP was vocal in his opposition to benefit fraud, but he was concerned that the regulations would cause "undue and unfair" hardship.

Mr Durkan said his party would rather see the coalition government in London display the same zeal in encouraging the uptake of benefits.

Judith Cochrane expressed support for the regulations on the part of the Alliance party, citing the serious matter of parity.

Mickey Brady of Sinn Fein echoed Alex Maskey's comments of opposition to the motion, stating that "sanctions are not victimless either".

The regulations were passed on an oral vote.

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