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Advice agencies welcome Mervyn Storey engaging with the sector on welfare reform

Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium welcomes DSD Minister Storey’s commitment to engage on funding discussions with the voluntary advice sector during the implementation phase of welfare reform.

The Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium, which comprises Law Centre (NI), Advice NI and Citizens Advice, has welcomed the Minister for Social Development’s statement in the Assembly during Further Consideration stage of the Welfare Reform Bill, to give ‘serious consideration’ to providing additional funding to the advice sector to help it prepare for the challenges and demand that will flow from the introduction of welfare reform in Northern Ireland.

Speaking on behalf of the Consortium, Bob Stronge, CEO of Advice NI, said:

“We were obviously disappointed that the Minister did not embrace the concept of a right to independent advice and assistance within the Bill as we feel this would have provided more protection to those people and families who may be impacted during the implementation phase of Welfare Reform. Nevertheless we are pleased that the Minister has introduced an amendment to ensure that advice and assistance are made available to persons making a claim resultant from Welfare Reform.

“We welcome the Minister’s support for the advice sector and the fact that he clearly values the work we do in supporting vulnerable people across Northern Ireland. We know that welfare changes will create uncertainty for many people in receipt of benefits and we are committed to helping them to understand how the new changes will affect them and also in supporting them to challenge unfair decisions. As an independent advice sector, that is what we are set up to do.”

The Bill completed Further Consideration stage on Tuesday 24th February; the next stage will be Final Stage, with Royal Assent expected in May 2015. During this period the Department for Social Development will also develop detailed proposals on payments to persons suffering financial disadvantage and how these schemes could provide support for those adversely impacted by the changes to the welfare system.

Commenting on the welfare reform changes, Pól Callaghan from Citizens Advice continued:

“We welcome the commitment to introduce a package of measures to help people who will lose out as a result of welfare reform and are keen to hear more about the detail of these. Just as government and its agencies will need to prepare for these measures, the advice networks need to prepare to help our clients. Our sector is already under pressure with increased workloads due to changes that have already occurred.  We have already seen huge increases in demand as a result of earlier changes to sickness and disability benefits as well as demand for tribunal representation. We need to increase frontline capacity to cope with the surge in demand that we anticipate.  We also need to provide training for advisers on the new benefits and on the mitigating measures; update our information systems; and improve our digital delivery systems and financial capability capacity.”

Law Centre (NI) Director Glenn Jordan concluded:

“We hope that the Minister will be able to use the Final Stage to strengthen his Department’s commitment to independent advice and to secure all possible mitigations that are in his power to deliver.”

Further information on the Welfare Reform Bill and the debates can be found on the NI Assembly website.

More about the Consortium partners:

Advice NI: http://www.adviceni.net/

Citizens Advice: http://www.citizensadvice.co.uk/pages/about_us/

Law Centre (NI): http://www.lawcentreni.org/about-us/what-we-do.html

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