Policy Bulletin No 1 - October 2007
Welcome to our policy bulletin. The Policy Unit began work in August 2006. This bulletin reports on the ongoing work of the Policy Unit within Law Centre (NI) and reflects the work undertaken in our first year. The unit works to respond to consultations received from statutory authorities, usually on a reactive basis, but also seeks to be pro-active in identifying, challenging, and influencing social policy as it evolves. We do this through briefing papers, liaison with political parties and representatives, by arranging conferences, seminars and meetings, by publishing reports and contributing to a wide variety of publications, both in-house and broader.
We would like to thank all of our colleagues in Law Centre (NI) for enabling and supporting the unit since its inception in August 2006. Our casework colleagues have been an invaluable source of expertise and commitment. We would also like to thank our funders including Atlantic Philanthropies and the Department for Social Development.
I hope that this bulletin gives you an insight into our policy work. We would welcome any comments that you might have on improving the presentation and content of the bulletin, and any innovations that you might think appropriate.
Policy unit staff
Ursula’s background is as a legal academic. She was Jean Monnet post-holder in European Law and Policy in the School of Law, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. At the University of Ulster she lectured in international human rights law and European law and was visiting Professor at the University of Western Ontario. She has written and published in the area of human rights law and European law. She has also worked as a research consultant and on equality and human rights policy for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, as well as for a number of non-governmental organisations.
Laura undertakes policy work in the areas of mental health, community care and social security policy work. A previous analyst for the New Zealand Ministry of Health on mental health and disability issues, she gained further experience in mental health and incapacity issues as a caseworker for people diagnosed with a mental injury as a result of sexual abuse or sexual assault. While completing her LLM (Hons) at Auckland University, specialising in social, economic and cultural rights and indigenous peoples’ rights, she was a legal researcher for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission.
Mark undertakes policy work in the areas of social security, immigration and employment and on issues affecting migrant workers. Prior to working for Law Centre (NI), Mark was a civil servant for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office where he worked on a range of policy initiatives including communicating and co-ordinating immigration policy and developing new technology to deliver government services to the public.
Kathryn is responsible for the administration of the Policy Unit, including the organisation of all seminars and events. She spent the previous twelve years as secretary to the Head of Sixth Form in a comprehensive school in England and was the first contact for students and parents, assisting in the completion of applications to universities.
The Bamford Review on mental health and learning disability
Over the past twelve months, the Bamford Review has completed its final reports. The Policy Unit submitted responses to consultations by The Bamford Review of Mental Health and Learning Disability (NI) on Promoting Social Inclusion and A Comprehensive Legislative Framework. The Promoting Social Inclusion report explores the stigmatisation of those with mental health and learning disability issues in Northern Ireland, highlighting the issues of health, education, employment, poverty and housing.
The final paper produced by the Review on proposals for a radical overhaul of mental health law in Northern Ireland (A Comprehensive Legislative Framework) was the subject of a seminar jointly hosted by the Law Centre and the Bamford Review in March 2007.
The Law Centre has welcomed the principles-based approach to the reform of mental health law in Northern Ireland and the introduction of capacity-based legislation as outlined in the Framework. Our response to the public consultation put forward a number of recommendations for the reform of mental health legislation in Northern Ireland. These include:
- developing the role of the Mental Health Review Tribunal into a decision-making body as per the Mental Health Tribunal for Scotland;
- the need for a statutory duty to provide adequate and appropriate treatment; and
- care for those who voluntarily seek to access services and the provision of free legal representation for people with mental health problems detained for treatment.
The Policy Unit continues to monitor the work of the Bamford Review and will host a seminar to mark World Mental Health Day on 10 October 2007 on the theme of Bamford One Year On to assess how the Review’s recommendations have been implemented to date.
The Law Centre plans to facilitate the development of a mental health network to engage in mental health policy work and to campaign for better mental health services and support in Northern Ireland. Law Centre invites any member organisations who are interested in finding out more about this network to contact the Policy Unit for further information.
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 and is liaising with MLAs. The unit has prepared a briefing paper highlighting its concerns regarding 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’. The Policy Unit will continue to work on this important area.
RICC - funding of long-term care
Policy work in the area of community care is also advanced through our work with Rights in Community Care (RICC). Law Centre (NI) is a founding member of RICC. We are hoping to campaign on some of the major issues concerning the funding of long term care in Northern Ireland including:
- the provision of free personal care, continuing care costs;
- the provision of support and services for carers;
- the use of direct payments;
- the assessment of individuals’ capital in jointly owned property;
- third party top up payments; and
- personal expenses allowances.
A briefing paper on long term care is being produced by the Law Centre to highlight particular areas of concern.
In February 2006, Law Centre (NI) prepared evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the human rights of older people in healthcare. We were one of a limited number of responses who provided evidence specific to Northern Ireland. In our evidence, we outlined our concerns regarding numerous human rights issues including:
- the assessment of capital and the contribution towards the cost of residential care payable by an older person;
- the need for the implementation of free personal care;
- development and monitoring of new standards by the RQIA to protect against elder abuse in residential care homes;
- the implementation of independent advocacy services for older people with mental health problems.
Welfare Reform Act
The Policy Unit has worked extensively in the area of Welfare Reform and has prepared numerous briefing papers on the Welfare Reform Bill as it passed through Westminster and then to the Northern Ireland Assembly for consideration.
The Act outlines considerable changes to Incapacity Benefit and Housing Benefit, including the replacement of Incapacity Benefit and Income Support with a new income related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). This 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’ who will not have to participate in such activities but can choose to do so if they wish.
The Policy Unit has worked closely with MLAs in providing comment on the implications of some of the Act’s provisions and in the drafting of potential amendments to the Bill, prior to it receiving Royal Assent. The Unit will continue to monitor the Act as regulations are drafted and released for consultation.
As part of the government’s ongoing commitment to Welfare Reform, the Department for Work and Pensions has advised of the government’s intention to review the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme. The first public consultation on the nature of the reform closed at the end of April 2007. The Policy Unit responded to this consultation, highlighting a number of concerns about the current scheme and areas for reform. Principal amongst these are:
- the call for increased recognition and awareness of mental injury as a work-related injury;
- the need for a greater focus on vocational rehabilitation as part of any reform; and
- the redrafting of the prescribed list of diseases and occupations.
Immigration / Migrant Workers
Home Office consultations
The Policy unit has responded to a number of Home Office consultations on immigration matters in the last twelve months. In December 2006, we examined the proposals on establishing a new charging regime for immigration and nationality fees. In January we commented on the proposal to establish a Migration Advisory Committee. We then responded to the Home Office consultation on the treatment of Unaccompanied Asylum Seeking Children in May and are currently preparing a response to a consultation on Simplifying the Immigration System.
UK Borders Bill
In January the Home Office presented its proposals for a major piece of immigration legislation. The UK Borders Bill is a substantive bill with wide ranging implications for those seeking to enter and remain in the UK. In its scope it seeks to extend draconian measures already in place and introduce other measures of concern into the immigration sphere. We were most concerned about:
- the increased powers proposed for immigration officers, without sufficient oversight;
- the increased drive to speed up the process of removal and deportation; and
- the plan to force asylum seekers to use identity cards.
The Policy Unit prepared a detailed response to the bill setting out our concerns and submitted our briefing to interested peers in April. In support of this, we also prepared articles for Frontline and the Writ and circulated our response to other interested groups within Northern Ireland.
North South Immigration Practitioners Forum
In January 2007, Law Centre (NI) hosted the first meeting of the North/South Immigration Forum. This emerged following meetings between caseworkers from Law Centre (NI) and immigration practitioners in Dublin where the benefit of regular exchange between immigration practitioners, both legal and policy, from both sides of the border on immigration issues was agreed. The first North South Immigration Practitioners Forum, chaired by Law Centre (NI) Assistant Director Ursula O’Hare, looked at the issues of unaccompanied children seeking asylum and separated families, issues of concern in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Representatives from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) gave presentations on best practice. The Forum also set aside time for practitioners to discuss various matters of interest and to agree a framework for future Forum meetings. The second Forum was held in June 2007 in Dundalk and organised in conjunction with the National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism (NCCRI). This meeting focused on the pending immigration legislation in both jurisdictions and drew another large group of immigration practitioners from both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
In advance of the forum, Law Centre (NI) director Les Allamby said: ‘This is an important time for immigration law and practice with new legislation for the UK and proposed for the Republic of Ireland. Sharing experiences and knowledge is vital if we are to ensure effective work between advice organisations in the best interests of those seeking to come to the UK or Republic of Ireland.’
Joe Lenaghan, Regional Development Officer with NCCRI commented: ‘Immigration policy is a very important aspect of NCCRI`s work through its Synergy North South Intercultural initiative and is fundamental to the integration process. It is also becoming an increasingly important area for North South co-operation across a range of areas, from rights and representation to policy impact monitoring. Shaping future immigration policy should not just involve government but also wider civil society.’
It is proposed that the third meeting of the forum will take place in January 2008 to explore issues facing migrant workers in both jurisdictions.
Treatment of asylum seekers
In September 2006, Law Centre (NI) prepared evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights on the treatment of Asylum Seekers. We provided evidence to the Committee on five issues:
- access to accommodation and financial support;
- the provision of healthcare;
- the treatment of children;
- the use of detention;
- conditions of detention and methods of removal of failed asylum seekers; and
- the treatment by media of asylum seekers.
In our evidence, we were able to draw on the knowledge and experience of our caseworkers and the situations faced by those we have represented and sought to emphasise the particular Northern Irish issues that could affect asylum seekers. Chief among our concerns are:
- unlike most other parts of the UK, there is no longer an Enquiry Office for asylum seekers in Northern Ireland;
- the practice of rapidly removing asylum seekers from Northern Ireland to Scotland and England is deeply worrying and on occasion denies individuals access to justice;
- certain factors unique to Northern Ireland, such as the land border with another EEA State and the potential for children born in Northern Ireland to be considered as EEA citizens are being disregarded once the asylum seeker has been removed from the jurisdiction.
Our evidence is considered in the Committee’s final report to Parliament.
We have responded to a series of consultations relating to employment matters. We have replied to both Department for Employment and Learning consultations on the proposal to increase holiday entitlement; a measure that will be introduced this autumn. We have also submitted responses to consultations on Defined Contribution Pensions and on the Department for Social Development’s consultation on Improving Claims Handling for Mesothelioma Cases.
Since the Assembly reconvened we have had the opportunity to discuss with all the parties in government our concerns on immigration matters. We have raised awareness of the specific Northern Irish dimension of immigration and prepared briefings on the operation of the Home Office Enforcement Unit in Northern Ireland. We have shared our concerns over the Home Office Border and Immigration Agency (BIA) operation, Operation Gull, which screens and detains individuals suspected of immigration offences at Northern Irish ports on an approximately monthly basis and the way in which a child born in Northern Ireland can be eligible for EEA citizenship.
Political briefings have been prepared and disseminated to MLAs on mental health and community care policy issues and specifically on the provision of age appropriate respite care in Northern Ireland and mental health legislative reform. The Policy Unit continues to update its briefings on the Welfare Reform Act and its associated regulations.
The Policy Unit is aiming to provide a targeted training course from the UNHCR looking at the asylum process in the autumn of this year and again we will be publicising details once they are confirmed. As noted above, we will be organising the third North South Immigration Practitioners Forum to be held in January 2008.
In May 2007 the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety commissioned an up to date assessment of the costs and potential implications for other services of the introduction of free personal care in Northern Ireland. The Department is due to report back to the Minister in October 2007. Once the results of this review are publicly available RICC plans to host a briefing event on the findings of the review and the implications for the funding of long term care in Northern Ireland.