Social Development Minister Nelson McCausland has announced that there will be some flexibility in the implementation of welfare reform in Northern Ireland.  In a statement to the Assembly he said split payments, rather than single ones, would be made where necessary.

Housing benefit would still be paid to landlords rather tenants, he said.

Earlier this month, Stormont MLAs voted in favour of the biggest shake-up of social security benefits for decades.

Mr McCausland met Welfare Reform Minister Lord Freud about the benefit changes last week.

He told the assembly Lord Freud had given a number of commitments in writing on issues he had raised.

Under the changes six benefits, including housing benefit, would be brought together in a single, monthly universal credit payment.

Mr McCausland said universal credit should launch in Northern Ireland in April 2014, six months later than in the rest of the UK.

He said the housing element of universal credit would be paid automatically to landlords rather than the tenant in Northern Ireland.

He also said it would be possible to split the payment of universal credit between two people in each household.

The minister said, where necessary, there would be two smaller payments per month rather than a single monthly payment.

Sinn Fein’s Alex Maskey said the concessions from the Work and Pensions Department were welcome, but there was still a lot of work to be done.

The SDLP’s Mark H Durkan said: “These announcements show that only operational flexibility has been found, not legal flexibility or financial flexibility – and they also give no indication of a recognition of factors prevalent here in the North that will make the impact of welfare reform here even harsher.

“We still have no flexibility or exemptions relating to under-occupancy, DLA changes and a raft of other elements which will adversely affect thousands of people in this region.”

The reforms will have an impact on thousands of people in NI, and will affect disability living allowance, housing benefit and employment support.

Several thousand people protested in Belfast on 20 October against austerity measures, including the changes to welfare.

The new legislation has already been passed in England and Wales.

A motion on the Welfare Reform Bill was passed in Stormont last Tuesday by 60 votes to 42.

A Sinn Fein amendment to postpone the bill failed.

The proposed measures will now go before a Stormont committee for more detailed consideration.

Mr McCausland said the timeframe for the bill was “very tight” and it was important to press ahead and get it through the assembly as quickly as possible.

He said passing the motion had been the only responsible thing to do.

The minister said universal credit was “a generational change”.

“We will have a system to break the scourge of workless households,” he said.

“I’m committed to the principle that people should always be better off in work.

“I remain committed to social security parity with the rest of the UK but I recognise our unique conditions in Northern Ireland.”

The Westminster government has said the overhaul will streamline payments and stop fraud.

The bill would also replace disability living allowance (DLA) with a personal independence payment.

It would mean claimants being independently assessed every three years, instead of assessing themselves, as happens at the moment.