Sunday, 21 May 2017

Desperately Seeking Sense

Blogging in these parts can become quite tiresome and repetitive when you consider what passes for political progress here. This is why I constantly find myself highlighting diatribe, dissolution and deadlock, and that's on a good day.

With Westminster now dissolved and the Stormont talks postponed until after the upcoming general election we in the north are without governance, which some would argue is no bad thing. However this aside, with the halting of the 'crucial' talks at Stormont to facilitate a Westminster election are we right to assume that Britain will again be playing the main role in breaking the deadlock and dealing with outstanding issues such as the past? Of course we are, with some politicians here always keen to abdicate the little responsibility they have particularly when it comes to contentious issues which could lose them votes.

Nineteen months ago Sinn Fein & DUP handed devolved welfare responsibility back to Westminster resulting in the Northern Ireland Welfare Reform Act, something they now deny. This act gave Westminster the power to implement Universal Credit which is to be introduced gradually in the north from September 25th 2017. Universal credit is a new payment for people of working age who are unemployed or on a low income. This payment  will replace existing benefits including Job Seekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Housing Benefit.

With the Stormont assembly still defunct the question now is how will they bring in legislation to cover the additional mitigation payments required for people who will be worse off under universal credit? As whilst the gravy train rolls on at Stormont those at the bottom await yet another blow as a consequence of austerity by proxy.

In addition to this is the ongoing threat of benefit sanctions. The Steps 2 Success Programme (work/beg for your benefit) which involves a mandatory time-frame of 52 weeks for claimants unemployed between 9-12 months saw 5333 participants between October 2014 and August 2016 face benefit sanctions. The majority of these sanctions were imposed upon people who failed to turn up for interview with their Steps 2 Success advisor. Within this programme sanctions involve the withdrawal of Jobs Seekers Allowance from 2-26 weeks depending on the breach. Now to give an example of a reason that people face sanction. A man had a job interview and tried to sign on early because the interview time clashed with his appointment to see his 'advisor'. What saved this person from being forced into financial difficulty was the fact that he got the job, many others are not as lucky.

In contrast, between 2014 and 2016 the three external providers of the Steps 2 Success Programme, Ingeus UK, People Plus and Reed in Partnership fell short in relation to key performance indicators with their overall performance regarded as unsatisfactory. Yet I doubt these substantially well paid private companies faced sanctions. So the next time someone tells you Stormont is working tell them to ask a person who is not.

Steps 2 Success Summary Statistics Oct 2014 - Sep 2016

And on the subject of sanctions, two local welfare rights advisory groups in Derry, the Rosemount Resource Centre and Galliagh Women's group recently lost their advice provider contracts with Derry and Strabane District Council. For the most part these contracts were lost due to a failure to meet the criteria laid down for customer information collation. That this loss can be justified at a time of economic despair and in a city with a high unemployment rate beggars belief.

In a report published by the investigative website the the North was to be the region hardest hit by welfare reform, with yes you guessed it Derry to top the list. In their article the states 'Derry tops the table with an estimated loss of £900 a year for every adult of working age'.

Let's look at the cuts to the advice services a few ways. Firstly, I'm sure we're not talking vast sums of money and secondly not even a month ago the Council passed a motion at its monthly meeting demanding that the Department for Communities make monies available to deal with the forecast increase in appeals as a result of Welfare Reform. Still council make the decision to reduce five service providers to three with no avenue of appeal available. Now considering these cuts to services are over the collation of some information it's not beyond reason to think Council could have demonstrated a common sense approach especially with council's own procedures being far from flawless.

In an external review of Derry and Strabane District Council's awarding of security contracts carried out by 'On Board Training and Consultancy Limited' in 2015 the report concluded that the procurement process consisted of: 'Weak guidance for those involved in procurements, a lack of standard documentation, it lacked central control and oversight to procurement and laxed supervision all of which exposed DCC to significant risk over many years'.

And if you think that's bad the report further included recommendations on how council could improve  'the handling of complaints, Freedom of Information Requests, Data protection, whistle-blowing and conflicts of interest, with control weaknesses found across these fundamental control areas'. Still this council saw fit to withdraw support from two community groups for less.

At the launching of the community plan on June 4th 2015 in line with local government reform the following was issued in a statement on the council website: 'At the heart of the Community Planning process is the commitment to enhancing the delivery of public services to ensure we are improving the well-being of all our citizens, and the plan will set out to address the specific needs of the city and district as identified by the people who live here.' With community planning an important part of council's remit I can't help but wonder if they have given any thought to the impact the removal of these two welfare rights services will have on their service users and the people who live in these areas. Probably not!

When you consider that those in Stormont have hardly warmed their seats and local government seems intent on hammering services that will help support those who stand to be most impacted by the Stormont sanctioned Tory implemented cuts the question we must ask is who benefits? It's not the person facing benefit sanctions, benefit cuts or the person losing their disability benefits, nor is it the third sibling who is to be denied support under the changes to child tax credit. As always it's those at the top with the finger always pointing down the ways when it comes to saving money.

I think it's time for Derry City & Strabane Council to prove it's worth. They can bring all the tall ships, Fleadhs and Clipper festivals they want, but when they cut front-line community based services that should be a line in the sand for any right thinking person. I hope when the politicians come asking for your vote you ask them if they intend to lobby Derry City & Strabane Council over their cuts to these services, I know I will.

It's  never too late to hold your hands up and say ok, let's see how we can fix this, but it takes courage and leadership... over to you Derry City & Strabane District Council.

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