Page last updated at 14:02 GMT, Monday, 29 October 2012

Northern Ireland Assembly

Proposed welfare reforms have created an "absolute fear" among the the most vulnerable in society, church groups told MLAs, on 29 October 2012.

Representatives from the Methodist Church in Ireland, Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Catholic Church and the Church of Ireland were appearing before the Social Development Committee to discuss the Welfare Reform Bill.

The bill, if passed, would bring the changes brought about at Westminster into effect in Northern Ireland.

The UK's coalition government has promised to "make work pay" with plans to ensure people in work are better off than the unemployed.

A universal credit, sanctions for those turning down jobs and a cap on benefits paid to a single family are among the changes outlined.

Fr Tim Bartlett said some of the fear stemmed from people "not knowing what is intended".

"I would appeal to you as politicians, even though a lot of this is going to be very difficult news for people, please start telling people as quickly as possible what they need to plan for and what they need to expect," he said.

Fr Bartlett added that he believed child poverty deserved the most urgent attention.

"Nobody wants the lifeboat of welfare to become a lifestyle, but in Northern Ireland, that boat has over 120,000 children and the water is already lapping over the sides."

He also said he was frightened that people were being encouraged to rent out spare rooms in their homes to others they did not know and he urged politicians to ensure strong safeguards were put in place.

Rev Adrian Dorrian said there was a "sense of hopelessness" among young people and they were becoming more reliant on benefits due to the difficulties with finding employment.

"Many think what's the point of working hard and trying to get vocational training or qualifications, because at the end there is not going to be anything," he said.

The committee then took evidence from the trade unions.

Alison Millar of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance (NIPSA) said there was a potential for up to 1,600 job losses in the public sector if the bill were enacted.

These losses would come in the departments dealing with the distribution of benefits.

Ms Millar also said the bill would result in "£500m being removed from the Northern Ireland economy".

Maria Morgan of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) said her organisation was opposed to the bill.

She said it was predicated on "very, very serious cuts of £18bn".

Ms Morgan said Northern Ireland would be the hardest hit region after London when it came to sanctions.

She asked how the sanctions regime could be justified when "there aren't the jobs and there isn't the childcare".

Derek Thompson of the Public and Commercial Service Union (PCS) described the bill as; "a systematic attack on a class, and on families".

He described the assessment process for the new Personal Independence Payment as "absolutely horrific".

Social development committee membership

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