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Policy Bulletin No 3 - November 2008

Introduction

As the party conference season gets under way, the Policy Unit has been engaged in a series of meetings with policy advisers to the political parties to outline our current policy work and priorities. We will be attending the conferences of the main political parties to highlight our key policy concerns. Our current policy focus is described below.

We are always glad to have feedback so please get in touch if you want to discuss any of the issues in this bulletin or if you would like more information.

Ursula O’Hare, Assistant Director (Policy)

Mental Health

Bamford Review

The Mental Health and Learning Disability Alliance, which is convened by the Law Centre, submitted a detailed reply to the Executive’s Response to the Bamford Review in October.

Alliance response

The Alliance submission highlighted concerns about:

  • the lack of clear, measurable targets, especially for the delivery of community services in mental health and learning disability;
  • the lack of dedicated structures to implement learning disability policy;
  • the twin-track approach to law reform; and
  • the lack of emphasis on challenging the stigma that is often associated with mental health difficulties.

A copy of the Alliance’s response can be obtained from the Policy Unit.

The Alliance marked World Mental Health Day by commencing a series of meetings with the health spokespersons of the political parties. Representatives of the Alliance outlined our main concerns about the Executive’s response to the Bamford Review. We urged that mental health and learning disability spending should be protected from 3% efficiency cuts because of the legacy of under-investment. We argued that bridging funding should be in place to support the transition from hospital care to community care. We pressed the case for increased respite packages for those with learning disabilities and for positive innovation in law reform.

The Law Centre response

The Law Centre’s own submission was focused on two issues. First, the proposals in relation to law reform. Second, the need for services for people suffering from a personality disorder. We welcomed the commitment in the Executive’s Response to the development of a personality disorder strategy. We understand that the draft strategy on personality disorder services will be published in late 2008.

We cautioned against the proposed direction of travel for law reform. The current proposal is for two pieces of legislation:

  • reform of mental health law by 2011; and
  • the introduction of capacity legislation by 2014.

We were persuaded by the Bamford Review’s vision of a comprehensive legislative framework which would meet the needs of all those who lack capacity. The right legislative framework can begin to tackle much of the stigma associated with mental health by establishing the principle that people with mental health difficulties should experience the health system on similar terms to those with a physical health problem and enjoy the same rights and choices in relation to their health care. Moreover, it can provide the legislative base for the development of service reforms, for example, a right to advocacy.

New mental health law should form an integral part of a single comprehensive framework that addresses the needs of all those with impaired decision-making capacity. This need not be overly complex. On the contrary, a single legislative framework regulating the rights and needs of all those who experience impaired decision-making capacity promotes clarity for users and practitioners alike. It guards against the patchwork development of law which may generate confusion and lead to inconsistencies where two pieces of legislation do not easily ‘fit’ with each other.

The Executive now needs to commit to a major project of law reform to deliver a modern, progressive, fit for purpose, legislative framework firmly rooted in overarching principles of respect for human rights.

A consultation on law reform is expected in the new year. The Law Centre has been invited to participate in a DHSSPS steering group on the new legislative framework.

Immigration

Independent Asylum Commission

In July, the Law Centre hosted the Northern Ireland launch of the Independent Asylum Commission’s reports into the state of the UK asylum system. Both junior ministers from the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) gave keynote addresses. The launch attracted widespread media coverage. It highlighted the difficulties faced by people who seek sanctuary in the UK and the particular problems posed by the practice of rapid removal of asylum seekers from Northern Ireland to detention centres in Scotland and England.

Reform of the current travel area

The current Home Office proposals to reform the Common Travel Area form part of the government’s overhaul of immigration law in the draft Immigration and Citizenship Bill. The Common Travel Area has been in operation since the 1920s and allows for free movement between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

We co-ordinated a response to this consultation on behalf of the UK-wide Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA). We were critical of the proposals for a number of reasons. They will make it more difficult to travel between the UK and the Republic of Ireland as well as between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. They will lead to more widespread immigration control at air and sea ports. They also involve an increase in powers for immigration officials.

A copy of the ILPA response is available at www.ilpa.org.uk.

In October, we submitted evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) on the human rights implications of the draft Immigration and Citizenship Bill. We identified numerous proposals within the Bill that are arguably incompatible with international human rights law. These include:

  • the increased powers for immigration officials without corresponding accountability;
  • the increased range of immigration offences; and
  • the ‘criminalisation’ of refugee seekers. The Bill proposes to make it a criminal offence to fail to claim asylum in a safe country prior to entry to the UK.

We also drew attention to the difficulties associated with the increased qualifying periods to obtain permanent settlement (up to eight years) and the wide-ranging restrictions on immigration appeal rights. We argued that the implementation of this Bill would expose the UK to potential challenges under human rights law and erode long-established constitutional arrangements. A copy of our evidence to the JCHR can be found on the Law Centre’s website www.law centreni.org.

Glasgow study visit

Earlier in the year, the Home Office published its plans to reform the system for responding to the needs of unaccompanied asylum seeking children. These include establishing centres of expertise for dealing with the needs of children within the asylum process.

With this reform process in mind, in October, we led a delegation to Glasgow to examine innovation in relation to unaccompanied asylum seeking children. The delegation comprised officials from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People. We met with the UK Border Agency, Glasgow City Council and the Scottish Refugee Council.

Spurred by widespread community opposition to dawn raids by immigration officials and the detention of families in removal centres, Glasgow City Council’s Lead Social Work Team has developed a model for working with the UK Border Agency. The social work team prepares a report on asylum seekers and their families while they are at liberty which pulls together relevant background and other information about the family. The report is drawn up with the consent of the family. This is transmitted to the Border Agency to assist it in coming to a decision about detention. This system has been running for twelve months and, in that time, is widely seen as a success. The number of dawn raids has diminished and no family has absconded.

The Law Centre has met with UK Border Agency officials to discuss participating in their unaccompanied asylum seeking children’s stakeholder group. We have also met with the DHSPSS and with OFMDFM to explore how best to meet the needs of unaccompanied asylum seeking children in Northern Ireland through a co-ordinated response at the regional level.

Earlier this month, we held a training event on trafficking and launched a leaflet explaining the rights of those who have been trafficked into Northern Ireland and signposting advice. Exploited is available on our website.

Employment

Employment agencies

We responded to a consultation by the Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) on Employment Agencies and Businesses: Proposed Changes to Investigation Powers and Penalty Regime. We also met with DEL officials to discuss the proposals.

The proposals seek to give DEL greater investigative powers to tackle rogue agencies. They would allow the Department to pursue a case before the Crown Court. This would mean that the courts could award greater fines against agencies who have failed to comply with the relevant law. Currently, the maximum fine is £5,000 because these cases are limited to the Magistrates Courts.

We welcome these proposals and argued that the time is right to merge the work of the three agencies responsible for employment inspection into one unified labour inspectorate. This would have the advantage of ensuring a more co-ordinated approach to labour inspection for the benefit of vulnerable employees.

Workplace disputes

Earlier in the year, DEL consulted on proposals to reform the system for resolving individual workplace disputes. We argued that the statutory disciplinary and dismissal process should be retained. It is simple and easily understood and it provides welcome clarity for both employer and employee. On the other hand, the current statutory grievance system is overly complex and should be reconsidered. We also argued that there is a need to fully consider the options for developing alternative dispute resolution processes for certain employment disputes. We raised a number of concerns about the barriers faced by many individuals seeking to enforce their employment rights under the present system.

In October, we organised a workshop at which we invited DEL to discuss the proposals with representatives from advice organisations from across Northern Ireland. DEL has now published its report on the pre-consultation exercise available at www.delni.gov.uk. The report identifies a desire for reform of the system of resolving employment disputes reflecting the specific needs of Northern Ireland. A full review of dispute resolution is promised for early 2009.

Community Care

Free personal care

At the Northern Ireland Health Economics Group Annual Conference in October, we heard about the experience of free personal care in Scotland and the role of direct payments and individual budgets in the health system. Publication of the report into free personal care in Northern Ireland, commissioned by the Health Minister in 2007, is still awaited. We will be taking forward work on the costs of free personal care in Northern Ireland with our Rights in Community Care partners.

February conference

Together with the Dementia Services Development Centre (NI) and the University of Stirling, we will be hosting a conference on Consent, Capacity and Human Rights in Dementia Care in February 2009. The conference will explore key aspects of dementia care and will draw upon best practice from elsewhere. A number of places will be available at a reduced rate for user groups and carers. Information about the conference is available at www.dementiacentre ni.org.

Social Security

Welfare reform

The consultation on the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) Green Paper on welfare reform, No-one written off: reforming welfare to reward responsibility closed in October. A range of reforms are proposed which would have significant implications for people in Northern Ireland if they are read across to Northern Ireland.

Government proposals

The backdrop to the Green Paper is the government’s overarching commitment to an 80% employment rate and to get one million people off Incapacity Benefit by 2015. The Green Paper envisages greater use of sanctions and the introduction of a form of ‘workfare’ – ‘work for your benefit’ – in certain circumstances, as well as a greater role for the private and voluntary sector in assisting people back to work. The proposals would move carers from Income Support to a modified form of Jobseeker’s Allowance. They would impose a more active regime on lone parents to actively seek work, including encouraging them to become more engaged with the labour market when their youngest child is five years of age.

Law Centre response

In our submission to DWP, we argued that Income Support should be retained, in particular for carers. We called for a clear regulatory framework to underpin any involvement of the private/voluntary sectors. The proposals relating to ‘conditionality’ and the increased use of sanctions are not supported by published evidence – on the contrary, research shows that sanctions do not work. We strongly argued that the implementation of the proposals relating to lone parents must first be supported with investment in the necessary childcare infrastructure. A copy of our response is available at www.lawcentreni.org/Policy/policy_responses.htm.

We briefed the DSD Committee on the Green Paper in October, recommending that it is not adopted in Northern Ireland (see www.lawcentreni.org/Policy/policy_responses.htm). The Committee took forward our recommendations in its own submission.

The DWP has since published a White Paper, Raising Expectations and Increasing Support, Reforming Welfare for the Future. The paper follows the publication of the Gregg Review which recommends that the government should move towards increased conditionality. The White Paper proposes the abolition of Income Support and moving those claiming Income Support to either Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance. It also supports the Gregg Review recommendations for increased conditionality. The government is currently consulting on a review of Social Fund and will be taking forward reform of Housing Benefit in 2009. We will be making a submission on the Social Fund and will monitor all these developments.

Lone parent regulations

We also briefed the DSD Committee earlier this month on new lone parent regulations (Social Security (Lone Parents & Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (NI) 2008). We highlighted the difficulties with proceeding with these regulations in Northern Ireland given the lack of affordable childcare and at a time of economic recession when the labour market is contracting. We also highlighted the potential impact on child poverty of sanctions against lone parents who do not meet the requirements of the Jobseeker’s Allowance regime. A copy of our briefing to the Committee is available at www.lawcentreni.org/Policy/policy_responses.htm.

The Regulations were passed earlier this month. The Executive has agreed to set up an inter-departmental working group on childcare and apply less rigorous arrangements than apply in Britain. We are awaiting the full details of these.

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