Sinn Fein condemns NI Secretary over victims pension funding suggestion

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Sinn Fein has criticised a suggestion by Secretary of State that the victims pension should be paid for with funds set aside for the New Decade New Approach deal.

Belfast and London have been at loggerheads over who should meet the cost of the Troubles Permanent Disablement Scheme, which has been estimated could reach £1.2 billion.

In a series of tweets on Friday, Brandon Lewis stood by his position that the Stormont Executive is well-funded through the block grant as well as its own revenue raising capabilities.

However he also said he has taken the “exceptional approach” of offering access to funds set aside for the New Decade New Approach deal to “help the Executive manage the cost of the scheme”.

Among the financial commitments the UK Government made in the New Decade New Approach deal to restore powersharing was £140 million of funding to address what were described as Northern Ireland’s “unique circumstances”.

This included issues related to the legacy of the Troubles.

It is understood that Mr Lewis is proposing that £100 million of this pot could be used to part fund the victims’ payments scheme.

Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy dismissed the suggestion as “not conducive to finding a solution for victims” and also claimed Mr Lewis has refused to meet with Executive ministers on the matter.

He contends that as Westminster legislated for the scheme, it should provide funding.

Mr Murphy insists the scheme developed by the Government has a wider scope than the version agreed by local parties in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.

The minister suggested that the funding should be spilt, with the Executive covering the costs of what the original scheme would have paid out and the Government paying for the rest.

“On March 3 I wrote to the Secretary of State recommending that the Executive cover in full the costs of the scheme envisaged at Stormont House, with the British Government funding the rest of the scheme,” the Sinn Fein man said.

“This was a reasonable solution that would provide certainty for victims.

“In the subsequent two weeks Mr Lewis declined to meet Executive colleagues and I to discuss this proposition.

“Via social media the Secretary of State has today offered to divert money which is already set aside as part of New Decade New Approach and which is not additional.

“This is not a constructive approach to finding a resolution for victims.”

Last month, the Court of Appeal in Belfast ruled that Stormont was under a legal duty to fund the payment scheme for injured victims of the conflict.

It made no finding on the source of that funding and gave the Executive and Northern Ireland Office four weeks to agree a solution.

A UK Government spokesperson denied the claim Mr Lewis refused to meet with Executive ministers.

“He has remained in contact with all the relevant Executive ministers on this issue. The Secretary of State has made clear the high priority which he places on having the Victims Payments scheme open and receiving applications as soon as possible,” they said.

“This scheme is a devolved matter, and devolved matters are funded from the Block Grant.

“However, to enable the Executive to make progress for victims and manage the higher pressures in the early years of the scheme, we have taken the exceptional approach of offering access to NDNA funds that will help the Executive manage the cost of the scheme.

“This flexibility will substantially reduce the costs in those years where costs are more significant, meaning there is nothing now standing in the way of the Executive delivering the scheme as set out in legislation.”

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