SDLP criticises Sinn Fein and DUP for ‘paltry’ Opposition Day debate turnout

Matthew O'Toole speaks to media in the Great Hall at Parliament Buildings ahead of leading the SDLP into the Assembly chamber for the second Opposition Day. Credit: PA

Sinn Fein and the DUP have been accused of showing a lack of respect on the issue of child poverty after the SDLP criticised their turnout at an Assembly Opposition Day debate on the issue.

SDLP MLAs made the claims as they tabled a motion calling on Communities Minister Gordon Lyons to draw up a plan to remove the controversial two-child limit on Universal Credit and Child Tax Credit benefit payments.

Tuesday was an Opposition Day at Stormont, with the SDLP controlling the order of business in the Assembly chamber.

The party’s first motion of the day focused on the UK Government’s contentious two-child-limit welfare policy, which restricts families to claiming Universal Credit or Child Tax Credit support for only their first two children, with no further support paid out for a third child or subsequent children.

The SDLP also tabled motions on eradicating fuel poverty and banning no-fault evictions in Northern Ireland.

Leader of the Opposition Matthew O’Toole opened his remarks on the two-child-limit debate by expressing regret that only two Sinn Fein and four DUP MLAs, including Minister Lyons, were present in the chamber for the start of proceedings.

“I would note with some regret today Madam Principal Deputy Speaker (Caral Ni Chuilin), the Opposition is the smallest of the five main parties represented in this chamber but we still have more MLAs in the chamber now than the two main parties combined, who have nearly 60 MLAs between them.

“I recognise that they may not want to give the Opposition Day much credence, but I would say that it would do them some credit to do the issue of poverty a little bit more … give it a little bit more respect than to have such a paltry turnout today.”

Mr O’Toole’s party colleague Daniel McCrossan also raised concerns.

“Maybe it’s the case that their track record of failure around poverty and actually resolving some of the problems is an embarrassment for them and that’s why they haven’t showed up in this chamber,” he said.

Later in the debate, Mr Lyons addressed the issue of attendance and rejected the SDLP claims. The minister further questioned the SDLP’s own non-attendance at a debate on housing last week.

“I have to say, I thought it was very strange that the SDLP and Mr O’Toole and then Mr McCrossan both indicated that attendance at debates shows the interest, or the levels of interest, the parties have in this matter and he (Mr O’Toole) pointed towards the attendance of other parties in this place,” he said.

“I don’t think that he can draw anything from the attendance of people here today. But, if he is to do that, and if he does continue down that line, that must mean that the SDLP have no interest in housing, because there was an adjournment debate here in this chamber last week on housing and not a single member of the SDLP turned up – so they may want to reconsider their thoughts on that particular issue.”

On the substance of the debate, Mr Lyons made clear he was opposed to the two-child limit. But he cited the cost implications of removing it in Northern Ireland while it remained in place elsewhere in the UK.

He said it would cost Stormont more than £56 million a year – a total that excluded the associated IT and administrative costs of setting up a different system.

Members of his SDLP and a number of anti poverty and children's lobby groups outside Stormont ahead of the second Opposition Day.

“I am certainly not in any way supporting or defending that two-child limit, I don’t think it is of benefit to people here in Northern Ireland,” he said.

“I however have to look at the cost of what mitigating that would be if we were to take that cost on for ourselves.”

During the debate, several MLAs raised particular concerns around the policy’s so-called “rape clause”, that allows women who give birth to a third or subsequent child as a result of non-consensual sex to claim addition benefit support, but only if they provided evidence confirming they were a victim of rape.

Mr Lyons branded the clause “horrendous”.

Sinn Fein MLA Colm Gildernew said his party supported offsetting the impact of the two-child limit on families in Northern Ireland.

“We believe that this policy discriminates against women and children, that it is a key driver of child poverty, and that it disproportionately impacts on people here because of our larger family size,” he said.

“The inclusion of what has become known as the ‘rape clause’ highlights just how wrong and unjust this policy is at every level.

“No child should be denied the financial support required to meet their essential needs. We have called repeatedly for the British Government to scrap this policy and we reiterate that call here today.”

A DUP amendment to the SDLP motion deleted the call for the minister to bring forward a plan to remove the two-child limit by the end of 2024 and replaced it with calls for him to consider the merits of a proposal to offset the payment cap with a Better Start Larger Families payment.

Members backed the amendment by 69 votes to 10, with the amended motion then passing without objection on an oral vote.

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