RESPONSE BY THE COMMUNITY FOUNDATION FOR NORTHERN IRELAND TO THE DEPARTMENT FOR SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT DRAFT BUDGET PROPOSALS. 1. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland welcomes the opportunity to respond to the consultation as it is seriously concerned about the impact of a range of proposed UK Government policy changes and, in particular, the proposed welfare benefits reforms. We understand that many of these policy proposals are outside of the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive but believe that the devolved government should develop strategies to ameliorate their impact on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society . We are particularly concerned – and acknowledge that the Minister for Social Development has also expressed concern – that the potential loss to Northern Ireland’s welfare benefit recipients is estimated to be more than £600 million p.a. by 2014-2015 and there can be no doubt that this will have a devastating impact on already vulnerable adults and children. Given that 10% of our households are totally dependent on welfare benefits compared to the UK Average of 6%, then the impact of welfare reform will have a differential impact here. 2. The Community Foundation supports the case put forward by the Poverty and Social Exclusion team in Queen’s University Belfast that the priority for the Northern Ireland budget should be: (a) To protect the living standards of those at the lower end of household income distribution and especially the prospects and opportunities for the children in those households; and (b) To improve the quality of life in households and communities most adversely affected by the recession. With regard to the latter, the Community Foundation would prioritize those households and communities that are adversely affected by the recession and already acknowledged to be living in circumstances of poverty and deprivation. The unique circumstances of a Northern Ireland emerging from years of conflict and the attendant repressed economy do not appear to have been considered. The conflict impacted most negatively on our poorest areas and there continues to be a lack of employment opportunity, ongoing educational under-attainment, a higher dependence on health and welfare benefits and support packages including services targeted at mental health, domestic violence, addiction, suicide prevention and homelessness. It should also be acknowledged that Northern Ireland has higher fuel, food and utility costs than other regions of the UK, so disposable income is already lower. Given the above context, the Community Foundation welcomes the three strategic priorities listed under section 3 of the Departmental document. 3. The Community Foundation recognizes that the realization of these priorities will require effective inter-departmental strategies and believes that it is particularly important that there is a close working relationship between the Anti Poverty programme within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development and the Department for Social Development, as well as a degree of coherence with the policy initiatives within the Office of First Minister & Deputy First Minister and, in particular, with Social Investment Fund to ‘address disadvantage in those inter-face communities where the problems are many and complex’. 4. The Community Foundation supports the Minister’s prioritisation of front line services as they impact on the most vulnerable households and communities (Section 5) and his acknowledgement that ‘seeking to protect investment in Neighbourhood Renewal, Public Realm and Voluntary and Community services will help those most in need at this time of economic difficulty’. The Foundation also believes that it is important to protect investment in voluntary and community services that will both help, and involve, those most in need over forthcoming years. However, it accepts that the priority must be support for those community and voluntary initiatives that can show evidence of working the most closely and effectively with those in need and can demonstrate how the quality of life for those households and communities are improved in real terms. It will be crucial to support those local groups and organisations that can identify and articulate where welfare reforms are having the most adverse impact and equally important that DSD has the policy responses and financial capacity to respond effectively. 5. The Community Foundation notes the suggested scaling back in support for benefit uptake. Given the likely adverse impact of the welfare benefit changes, and the possible confusion and uncertainty related to these changes, the Community Foundation would welcome a more imaginative approach by the Department in continuing to encourage and support effective mechanisms to promote benefit take up amongst vulnerable groups. This should utilise community based partners but also networks of contact that are natural points of communication and networking with vulnerable groups, e.g.. families availing of Free School Meals could be provided with information through the school network; Health visitors are another source of contact; but, in addition to this, the most vulnerable still need advocacy support. The impact of welfare and tax reform must be monitored. The predicted loss of approximately 38,000 jobs (50% of which are anticipated to the public sector jobs) will have a disproportionate impact on women. The impact of the welfare reforms must be monitored for the impact on gender, disability, children, older people, minority ethnic groups and community background etc. (a differential currently exists with dependence on welfare benefits standing at 13% in the Catholic community and 9% in the Protestant community). DSD is best placed to monitor the impact of welfare and tax reforms. It also stands to be under most pressure financially as it will be the first port of call for those losing employment and/or homes. 6. The suggestion, under paragraph 6.6, that front line services in areas such as community development, support for the voluntary and community sector, support for voluntary advice services and for women in disadvantaged areas – amongst other items - may suffer reductions in public funding is deeply worrying. Since its establishment as the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust in 1979, the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland has invested heavily in each of these areas. Our experience of working through the recessionary policies of the 1980’s provided us with evidence to illustrate how the work of Women’s Groups and Centres in disadvantaged areas, and working with marginalized groups, actually contributed to both household well-being and community cohesion. Instead of running this provision down, we feel that it is timely to enhance it. Clearly any such investment must be targeted along clear indicators of effectiveness and capacity to reach directly to women living in poverty. Similarly, it is felt to be very important for the Department for Social Development to maintain its support for quality community development work which can deliver evidence based outcomes relating to community resilience and the creation of opportunities. Without this, the Community Foundation cannot see how the Department can remain true to its declared strategic priority of ‘Tackling poverty and social needs experienced by the most vulnerable in society, bringing divided communities together and encouraging social responsibility’. 7. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland feels that it is understandable that the Department would wish to encourage organisations to identify opportunities to collaborate, share services and merge to reduce costs and protect services. It also believes that this should be in the context of promoting effectiveness and efficiency and that a distinction should be made between the impact of this efficiency drive on the voluntary sector (many of which are centrally located headquarters organisations that may have the potential to share premises, resources and backroom staff support) as compared to the more locally based community sector groups. Within the latter, collaboration and sharing could be considered within the context of bringing divided communities together through the sharing of resource support but it may also be much more difficult for this sector to share resources due to the very local nature of their work in responding to needs through the delivery of localised services and activities. 8. The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland notes the reference to possible cuts with regard to the financial support available to District Councils through the Community Support programme. It is important that we do not reduce their capacity to the extent that we lose the potentially important contribution that community planning might make within the context of the eventual Review of Public Administration. The current circumstances, however, might open up the possibility of examining an overall integrated quality support mechanism for community development that might inform the roll out of the Review of Public Administration, and community planning in particular. 9. The Community Foundation supports the Department in making a continued commitment to the Housing Rights Service, particularly in the context of the likely impact of the reduced Housing Benefits available. It is, however, concerned about the reduction in capital allocations and its impact on new build social housing or the departmental capacity to avail of the opportunity to purchase at highly competitive prices from the private sector where large developments lie empty and will continue to do so for years to come. Access to affordable housing is crucial as demand, which is already high and unmet, will continue to grow as families lose the homes they have purchased as a result of loss of employment or reduced income. 10. The Community Foundation believes that it is important that the delivery of services to vulnerable groups and disadvantaged communities should be managed in as effective a manner as possible, with an openness to delivery at community and/or sub regional level rather than at a central or departmental level. While we are supportive of the Urban Renewal programme, we believe that this programme should not be constrained by short- termism, bureaucracy and unnecessary risk-adverse procedures. We are concerned that the admirable policy intent of the programme can be undermined by unwieldy administrative burdens. We feel that this should be addressed as a matter of urgency. 11. The Community Foundation welcomes the Department’s plans to carry out Equality Impact Screenings and, where necessary, full Impact Assessments for individual cases and its plans to ‘attempt to put protection of persons and families in need as a core value of its Budget. However, this will require the drafting of agreed means of measuring need comparatively between individuals and vulnerable groups in order to objectively show which persons and families are ‘most in need’. 12. The Foundation has been impressed by the steps taken by the Department – and its Minister – to engage with stakeholders and would like to acknowledge the level of consultation directly undertaken. The Foundation remains willing to work with the Department in meeting its strategic priority of tackling poverty and bringing divided communities together, as well as augmenting and recognising community resilience. Avila Kilmurray, Director, Community Foundation for Northern Ireland 14th February 2011.
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