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Policy Bulletin No 2 - July 2008

Introduction

Welcome to this policy bulletin which gives an update of policy developments in the Law Centre’s areas of work and an overview of the current work of the Policy Unit. We hope you find this useful and welcome any comments you may have.

Mental Health

The Policy Unit continues to monitor the progress towards the implementation of the Bamford Review. Law Centre (NI) is concerned at the slow rate of progress to date and will respond to the DHSPSS’s current consultation on the NI Executive’s response to the Bamford Review (available at www.dhspssni.gov.uk). Our response will be posted on our website.

Mental Health and Learning Disability Alliance

At the Law Centre’s conference on the Bamford Review in 2007, the Policy Unit had announced its plan to facilitate the development of a network to lobby and campaign for mental health legal reform and improved services. After an initial meeting of interested organisations, it was agreed to establish the Mental Health and Learning Disability Alliance.

Central to the vision of the Alliance is valuing people with mental health needs or learning disabilities and their rights to full citizenship, equality of opportunity, self-determination and respect for human rights. In March, the Alliance met to agree terms of reference and a programme of work. The common aim for all the organisations involved is ensuring the fullest possible implementation and resourcing of the Bamford recommendations.

In May, representatives of the Alliance met with members of the Assembly’s Health Committee to highlight the Alliance’s main concerns. It is hoped the Alliance, with its broad range of members from a diverse range of agencies, will help to provide a focus for campaigning.

There will be a launch of the Alliance later in the year to mark World Mental Health Week. This will coincide with a roundtable on law reform planned for World Mental Health Day on 10 October.

Community Care

Free personal care

In February, the Law Centre hosted a conference in the Stormont Hotel on the Funding of Long Term Care. The keynote speaker was Niall Dickson, Chief Executive of the King’s Fund. The lecture highlighted the need for a review of how Northern Ireland pays for the long term care needs of an aging society. Attended by more than 50 organisations, the conference helped to provide a focus for the debate on long term care which is currently under review by the Department.

The Department’s review coincides with developments in Scotland and England. In Scotland, the Audit Office released its review of free personal and nursing care in January 2008 (available at www.audit-scotland.gov.uk/docs/health/2007/nr_080201_free_personal_care.pdf). This has interesting messages for potential policy transfer in Northern Ireland. In May, the Health Secretary launched a consultation on the future shape of care and support services (The Case for Change: Why England Needs a New Care and Support System, available at www.dh.gov.uk/en/index.htm).

The Policy Unit continues to advance work on this issue through its involvement in the Rights in Community Care group. The group is currently developing a research report setting out potential ways forward on long-term care for Northern Ireland.

Respite care

The Law Centre’s Community Care legal service is representing a number of families who are facing difficulties in accessing age appropriate respite care services for young adults with severe learning disabilities. The Policy Unit is also taking this work forward in partnership with Barnardos in Northern Ireland. The Unit will produce a briefing paper highlighting its concerns on the lack of funding and facilities for young adults with severe learning disabilities.

The Assembly debated the issue of respite care on 3 July 2007 and unanimously agreed the motion that ‘this Assembly demands improved respite provision for those with special needs’. However, provision remains unchanged and totally inadequate.

Social Security

Proposals to limit backdating of Housing Benefit and Pension Credit

We responded to the Social Security Advisory Committee’s consultation on the Department of Work and Pension’s proposals to limit the backdating period for Housing Benefit and Pension Credits from twelve months to three months.

There has been a successful take-up campaign for Pension Credits. The level of uptake of the guarantee element of Pension Credit increased in the last year from 78% to 93%. This benefit has played an important role in lifting significant numbers of pensioners out of poverty. We are concerned that the proposed changes to the backdating rules for Pension Credit may have a negative impact on pensioner poverty.

Equally, the proposed changes to the backdating rules for Housing Benefit risk increasing the levels of rent arrears for those affected by the rule changes and exposing some of the most vulnerable groups in society to homelessness.

A copy of our response is available at www.lawcentreni.org/Policy/policy_responses.htm or in hard copy by request.

Employment and Support Allowance

Since its inception, the Policy Unit has worked extensively on the Welfare Reform Bill. The Act will introduce considerable changes when it comes into force later this year, including the replacement of Incapacity Benefit and Income Support on grounds of incapacity with a new income related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

The Employment and Support Allowance separates claimants into two groups:
(i) the Work Related Activity Group for those capable of participating in work-focused interviews and activities; and
(ii) the Support Group for those who are assessed as being ‘severely functionally limited’.

As ESA is due to be introduced in the autumn, the Policy Unit will work closely with the social security caseworkers to identify any emerging trends.

Our main concern is that some claimants will lose out. For example, people in the work-related activity group will only receive £84.50 after thirteen weeks compared with existing claimants on Income Support who are entitled to the disability premium who get £86.35, a reduction of £1.85. This is only one of several changes which will result in reductions in allowance.

The Child Poverty Action Group has commented: "Some ..... will actually be worse off by as much as £400 per year. This reform was never presented as an opportunity to squeeze out savings from the poorest disabled people and it must not be used for that."

Lone parents regulations

The Social Security Advisory Committee has consulted on government proposals which would extinguish lone parents’ entitlement to Income Support on the grounds of being a lone parent.

From November 2008, lone parents with a youngest child aged twelve would be required to move from Income Support to Jobseekers Allowance and therefore engage in the normal arrangements for seeking work. It is intended to extend this to lone parents who have a youngest child aged ten by 2009 and further, to lone parents with a youngest child aged seven by 2010. The proposals pre-suppose a childcare infrastructure that is not in place in Northern Ireland.

In the absence of a lead Department to take responsibility for developing comprehensive, affordable and quality childcare provision, it is hard to envisage how these proposals can be implemented within the government’s timetable. The Law Centre’s response to the consultation is available on our website and in hard copy by request.

Immigration

Asylum report launch

On July 22, Law Centre (NI) will be welcoming back the Independent Asylum Commission (IAC) for the regional launch of its wide-ranging report on the state of the UK asylum system.

The Commission held a private evidence gathering session in Belfast in November 2007, hosted by the Law Centre. The interim findings of the report "Fit for Purpose Yet?" were launched nationally on 27 March 2008. The report highlighted a number of significant issues of concern regarding asylum in the UK. It concluded that, while improving, the UK asylum service was not fit for purpose and was marred by decisions that led to vulnerable individuals being treated inhumanely.

North South Forum

In February, the third North South Immigration Practitioners forum was held in Newry. The forum looked at the future direction of migrant worker policy both in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. The speakers were Martina Glennon, from the Office of the Minister for Integration in Dublin, Jim Walker, from the Department for Education and Learning in Belfast and Jacqueline Healy, from the Dublin based Migrant Rights Centre. The papers and ensuing discussion focused on the challenges in meeting the needs of migrant workers, the barriers to their integration and possible best practice in providing services for them.

The fourth North South Immigration Practitioners forum and seminar was held in Dublin on 9 July. The meeting, co-hosted with the Immigrant Council of Ireland looked at the growing issue of trafficking in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Speakers from the Immigration Law Practitioners Association, the Migrant Rights Centre and the Immigrant Council of Ireland explored the law and practice on trafficking. This built upon the work Law Centre (NI) has done on highlighting the plight of vulnerable groups and aimed to examine how best to care for the victims of this crime.

Unaccompanied and trafficked children

In April, Law Centre (NI) hosted representatives from UNHCR, UNICEF, and the Refugee Council Children’s Panel for a daylong event on how best to meet the needs of unaccompanied and trafficked children in Northern Ireland. The event was attended by a diverse audience from the social care, legal, policing and voluntary sectors. It was part of an ongoing programme of work at the Law Centre to draw attention to the often desperate situation these vulnerable children find themselves in. The day highlighted the need for a more co-ordinated approach to looking after these children.

Participants examined the model of the Refugee Council Children’s Panel, for which there is no comparable group in Northern Ireland. It was felt that this type of body would promote greater understanding and implementation of best practice. This could make a significant difference to the lives of unaccompanied and trafficked children in Northern Ireland.

Consultations

Since the last bulletin, the Home Office has published a number of consultation documents and continued with the changes to the Immigration system to facilitate the introduction of its Points Based System (PBS).

Marriage Visas: Pre-entry English Requirement for Spouses

This consultation saw the Home Office recognise that lack of English language ability can lead to difficulty in integrating for spouses of workers in the UK. The Home Office view was that the best way to bridge this gap is to put in place barriers to the entry of these spouses until they have attained English language proficiency. The document argued that this would speed up the integration of spouses and help prevent trafficking and forced marriages of vulnerable individuals.

Marriage to Partners from overseas

In January, the Home Office brought forward proposals to prevent individuals from overseas being forced into marriage. These include that:

  • no-one should be pressurised into sponsoring a marriage visa;
  • those who do sponsor a marriage visa should have an independent life in the UK already; and
  • anyone who has sponsored a marriage visa but then been abandoned should be entitled to rights.

While the practice of forced marriage does need addressing, there was concern that the measures are intended more as a barrier to individuals coming into the UK to establish a family life.

Visitors Consultation Paper

In its consultation on reforming the visitor visa system, the Home office looked at possible changes to the current visitor visa to allow for better monitoring of visitors to the UK and to help prevent individuals from entering the UK under false pretences.

Proposals include replacing the current visitor visa with a number of visitor categories: tourist visa, group tourist visa, business and special visitor visa, events visa, and family visit visa as well as looking at the system for appeal against decisions on visas.

One of the most contentious proposals was to introduce a requirement that family visits should be sponsored, which could have the effect of seriously curtailing the attendance at family events such as marriages, births, funerals etc.

Keeping Children Safe from Harm – Code of Practice Consultation

The aim of this consultation was to shift the way the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) treats children and to ensure that they do not come to harm while in the care of the UK authorities.

While we applauded the sentiment behind the consultation, we were concerned that the changes proposed did not go far enough to ensure that these children would be safe from harm.

In particular, we were concerned that the proposals did not address the specific Northern Irish circumstance of a child being detained in Northern Ireland, then rapidly moved across the Irish Sea, and then moved around the detention estate.

Compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals

In the UK Borders Act of 2007, the UK government set out its proposals to introduce biometric ID cards. In the first instance, it was intended for these cards to be introduced for foreign nationals in the UK. This consultation sets out the steps the UKBA is planning on taking to introduce these measures. This issue has raised significant concerns. The Law Centre commented on these in our initial response to the Borders Bill.

The Path to Citizenship: Next Steps in Reforming the Immigration System

As part of its ongoing efforts to overhaul the entire immigration system, the Home office looks, in this consultation, at changes to the pathways to gaining citizenship.

The main proposals are to simplify the present system into three routes for citizenship:
1. highly skilled and skilled workers under the points-based system, and their dependants (economic migrants);
2. family members of British citizens and permanent residents;
3. those in need of protection (refugees and those granted humanitarian protection).

For these routes, the consultation paper proposes to introduce three stages:
1. temporary residence;
2. probationary citizenship; and
3. British citizenship/permanent residence.

The current proposals are very much at an initial consultation stage. We anticipate that they will be further developed later in the year. The Law Centre will produce a briefing paper on the proposals as they develop.

The Law Centre’s responses to the following consultations can be read in our Policy Responses section:
A. Marriage Visas: Pre-entry English Requirement for Spouses;
B. Visitors Consultation Paper; and
C. Keeping Children Safe from Harm – Code of Practice Consultation

Alternatively, you can request hard copies from the Policy Unit.

The Home Office responses to the marriage and visitor consultations are now available at: www.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk.

Employment

Employment agencies

Over the summer, we are preparing a response to the Department for Employment and Learning’s (DEL) consultation on changes to investigation powers and the penalty regime in relation to employment agencies.

DEL proposes to extend its investigative powers to enable it to obtain relevant financial information from third parties, such as banks, when investigating agencies suspected of obtaining money unlawfully. DEL also wishes to increase the penalty for breach of an order prohibiting an individual from running an agency.

The consultation document is available from the DEL website.

Dispute resolution

In April, the Law Centre responded to DEL’s pre-consultation on Dispute Resolution. The document looked at replacing the current grievance procedure and statutory disciplinary process in Northern Ireland.

While we accepted that the current grievance procedure was overly complex and in need of reform, we suggested that there were compelling reasons for retaining the current statutory disciplinary process. In particular, Northern Ireland has a significantly higher proportion of small businesses than the rest of Britain for whom the statutory disciplinary procedure provides welcome clarity as to their legal obligations in this area. Our response is available from our website or in hard copy, on request.

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