Welfare Reform will not go away and all the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive need to face up to that challenge. Burying heads in the sand and hoping it will go away will not solve the problem. We need a welfare system that is fair and sustainable and which provides support to the most vulnerable in our society. Indeed we are part of the United Kingdom welfare system and we receive from the Treasury in London, every year, about £5.5 billion into Northern Ireland in welfare payments whilst only paying £2.5 billion into central treasury funds.
The welfare reforms that were agreed by the UK parliament at Westminster had some good elements but as we all know contained many flaws. These flaws would have had a detrimental impact on Northern Ireland and indeed it is hard to imagine the government sustaining some of their changes in the medium term, for example around the ‘Bedroom Tax’. That is why I negotiated with London a package of unique to Northern Ireland flexibilities that address some of the flaws in welfare reform to which I referred.
Those changes were negotiated by a DUP minister after lengthy engagement with UK ministers. No other political party negotiated them and no other political party could negotiate them. We did that because we are a compassionate party. We have a concern for the most vulnerable and that is why so much time and energy and effort were devoted to this issue.
I also engaged with the First and deputy First Ministers and the then Finance Minister to agree a further package of measures which will go even further. The full package is there and ready to go to the Executive. I am therefore frustrated at the procrastination of Sinn Fein and their refusal so far to face up to the issue. Nevertheless we have played our part and I am sure, when the full package of flexibilities is announced that most people will be pleased by what we have achieved.
You will appreciate that change is a constant in most areas of government and none more so than the Department for Social Development. There will also be change in relation to the provision of social housing. I have already listed our achievements but we need to do more and that requires a reform of social housing. The Northern Ireland Housing Executive has remained unchanged for 40 years but the time for change has come. We are all aware of the problems there have been in the organisation for a number of years in relation to the way that the Housing Executive managed and monitored its response maintenance contracts and its planned maintenance contracts and that mismanagement has cost us millions of pounds. Under the watch of the DUP those issues have now been identified and I am determined that they will be dealt with.
However these issues reveal a deeper malaise that existed in the organisation, especially at the top of the organisation. I am pleased that slowly but surely change is happening, new appointments have been made to the Board and at the senior level within the organisation and I am very encouraged by the changes to date.
Moreover, looking to the future, I am also determined that we will develop a new model for delivering social housing and one that will be affordable, sustainable and able to build more social homes. That work is already underway.