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Policy Bulletin No 4 - July 2009

Introduction

It is no surprise that many of the issues reported on in the last bulletin continue to occupy us.  Three major legislative reform initiatives are underway: welfare law reform; immigration law reform and mental health and capacity law reform.

The Assembly recess in July affords an opportunity to prepare for what promises to be a busy period ahead with the introduction of new bills on welfare reform, mental health and capacity and an older people’s commissioner into the Assembly in the next session.

Please get in touch if you want to find out more about any of the issues in this Bulletin.

Ursula O’Hare Assistant Director (Policy)

Social Security

Housing Benefit

In March, we gave evidence to the Social Development Committee, recommending that proposed UK-wide changes to Housing Benefit which would cap entitlement to five bedroom properties are not implemented in NI.

The proposed change was in response to a case in London of one family claiming £12,000 of Housing Benefit per month.  We argued that the proposals did not reflect the circumstances of NI and potentially raised Section 75 implications.

The Committee supported our recommendation.  The Department has now decided not to implement the changes.

Welfare reform

Law Centre (NI) continues to work on the Welfare Reform Bill (the Bill) which was introduced to Westminster on 14 January 2009.  There are a number of positive aspects to the Bill such as proposals to recognise carers and give increased control to people with disabilities.  However, we are concerned by a number of other proposals.  These include:

  • an increased focus on conditionality and sanctions;
  • the move away from Income Support to a single working age benefit; and
  • the introduction of a requirement for lone parents with children aged under seven years of age to actively seek work as a condition of JSA.

In March, we sent evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into the human rights implications of the Bill (available at www.lawcentreni.org).

In April, we gave evidence to the Committee for Social Development on the implications of the Bill for Northern Ireland.

The principle of social security parity has dominated the development of social security policy and legislation in Northern Ireland, although social security is a transferred matter with separate legislation and administrative arrangements.  While benefit rates are universal across the UK, there are significant differences in social security provision which recognise the particular circumstances in Northern Ireland.

We highlighted this to the Committee.  We argued that since Northern Ireland presents particular circumstances with regards to welfare and arrangements to move people into employment, it is appropriate to tailor a local approach to issues raised in the Bill.

We will be providing briefings on the Bill as it makes its way through the legislative process. These will be available on our website.

Lone parents

We reported in the last bulletin on the new lone parent regulations (Social Security (Lone Parents & Miscellaneous Amendments) regulations (NI) 2008) which transfer certain groups of lone parents from Income Support to Jobseeker’s Allowance.  We have lobbied against their introduction in the absence of the appropriate childcare infrastructure to support the changes.

The Regulations were approved by the Assembly on 26 May 2009.  The Minister for Social Development announced that, in recognition of the current problems with childcare provision in Northern Ireland, she has built in an extra flexibility, which is not available in Britain, for lone parents here.   Where it is clear from the outset that no suitable childcare is available in an area, the requirement to attend the office fortnightly will be waived.  Instead, the lone parent will be asked to attend only every thirteen weeks.

The Ministerial Sub Group on Children and Young People has identified childcare as an urgent priority. A cross-departmental subgroup has been tasked to produce a report to identify options for further childcare provision.  This is expected imminently and the Law Centre will continue to monitor the development of a childcare strategy.

Community Care

Funding for long term care

In January 2009, the Health Minister announced that funding will not be available for the introduction of free personal care.  This follows a Departmental review of the cost of free personal care.  In May, the Minister indicated that he remains committed to introducing free personal care.  Meanwhile in England and Wales, social care will move centre stage with a Green Paper due to be published in June which will set out an agenda for reform of the social care system.

This makes all the more timely the research by a number of members of the Rights in Community Care group into funding of long term care in NI.  The paper will explore options for funding long term care that meets the needs of older people and promotes fairness within the system.  The Rights in Community Care group will use the options paper to campaign on personal care including an event in the autumn.

Older People’s Commissioner

Along with the leading age sector groups, the Law Centre is involved in the campaign for an Independent Older People’s Commissioner for Northern Ireland.    We met with officials from OFMDFM in March to discuss the role and remit of the Commissioner.

We support the appointment of a Commissioner with the powers necessary to meet the expectations and needs of older people in Northern Ireland, including investigatory and casework powers.

It is expected that the matter will come before the OFMDFM Committee before the summer recess.

Immigration

Borders, Immigration & Citizenship Bill

In January, the government published the Borders, Immigration and Citizenship Bill.  Unusually, the Bill was introduced in the House of Lords.  We briefed the Lords on our concerns with a number of aspects of the Bill.  In particular, we argued against the provisions in the Bill which would effectively revoke the Common Travel Area arrangements between NI, GB and the Republic of Ireland by introducing increased powers of border control on travel within the two islands.  We were pleased that the Lords amended the Bill to exclude the provisions relating to the Common Travel Area.

In May, we drafted a briefing on the Bill (available at www.lawcentreni.org).  This was endorsed by a wide range of voluntary organisations and used to lobby MPs and other local elected representatives on the potential implications for NI.

The Bill has now moved to the Commons and we are preparing further briefings for members of the Commons on its implications.

The last meeting of the North-South Immigration Forum, held in Belfast in February, discussed the reform of the Common Travel Area.  The next meeting, planned for the end of the summer, will consider the broader implications of the new legislation.  For further details, please contact the Unit.

Unaccompanied Children

In May we met with DHSSPS officials to discuss progress in relation to the needs of vulnerable children within the immigration system.  We have asked the Department to issue guidance to confirm that there should be a presumption that unaccompanied children should be ‘looked after’ children.  In early July we are bringing together a number of organisations working on children’s issues to explore how best to monitor and meet the needs of children subject to immigration control.

Employment

Employment agencies

The Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) has produced its response to the consultation on employment agencies.

We support the Department’s proposals that it should have greater investigative powers to tackle rogue agencies and should be able to pursue cases against non-compliant agencies in the Crown Court.  The higher fines available in the Crown Court may have a greater deterrent effect.

The Department now intends to introduce these proposals in the Employment Bill.

Dispute resolution

DEL has also published its proposals on dispute resolution.  This is a major consultation on the reform of the system for handling workplace disputes.

DEL is consulting on a menu of reform options spanning management capability; reform of the current statutory dispute resolution procedures; alternative dispute resolution; tribunal processes and legal remedies.  A copy of DEL’s consultation is available at www.delni.gov.uk .

Law Centre is hosting a roundtable in early July, involving the advice sector and representatives of the Department, to discuss the proposals.

Other Issues

Human rights

There have been a number of developments in the wider human rights field over the last few months.

In April 2009, the Policy Unit submitted evidence to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights for consideration in advance of the examination of the UK’s 5th periodic report to the Committee on its adherence to the Covenant.

We drew the Committee’s attention to our concerns about:

  • the current welfare reform agenda and child poverty in Northern Ireland; and
  • the vulnerabilities of some groups of migrant workers in terms of employment rights and access to social services support.

Child poverty

The Policy Unit continues to highlight its concerns regarding the level of child poverty in Northern Ireland, raising specific concerns on the potential impact on child poverty of the Welfare Reform Bill and Lone Parent Regulations.

The Unit has responded to a consultation on child poverty by the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Ending Child Poverty: Making It Happen outlined plans to introduce a Child Poverty Bill in Great Britain.  Our response highlighted:

  • that Northern Ireland has an additional target for the elimination of severe child poverty by 2012; and
  • that the lack of availability of affordable and accessible childcare in Northern Ireland poses a considerable challenge to meeting this target.

Law Centre (NI) is a member of the Child Poverty Alliance.  We will continue to work with the coalition to raise the profile of this issue.

Tribunal reform

Finally, the Law Centre has been successful in its application to Nuffield for funding to undertake research on tribunal reform in NI.  Research will begin over the summer.

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