Belfast Citywide Tribunal Service – a service no more?

A plea has been made to Belfast City Council to continue funding an advice service that is believed to have helped thousands of the most vulnerable citizens retain their benefits in a time of welfare reform and austerity.

The Belfast Citywide Tribunal Service (BCTS) is set to close its doors, after its funding came to an end on 31st December 2016. Eight members of staff will lose their jobs when the organisation is forced to shut, including five full-time tribunal representatives and two tribunal assistants.

BCTS represents clients who wish to appeal Social Security Agency (SSA) decisions on benefits, including Employment Support Allowance, Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independent Payment and Universal Credit. It enables clients to challenge decisions, assisting them through the process and representing them in both an Appeal and Tribunal setting.

BCTS was established in anticipation of welfare reform, aiming to address the impact cuts would have on citizens in receipt of benefits, including Disability Living Allowance and Employment Support Allowance. It was also hoped that the service would provide assistance those affected by the introduction of Personal Independence Payments, which will replace Disability Living Allowance by 2020.

The service has been funded by Belfast City Council, with support from the former Department of Social Development (now the Department for Communities), since June 2013. However, despite the demand and need for the service, funding was only agreed for two years, up until the end of 2016.

Belfast City Council is a major funder of advice providers across Belfast, which provide free, confidential and independent advice on a range of issues including benefits, consumer, debt, employment and housing issues.

In recent years, the centres supported by the Council (which are members of either Citizens Advice or Advice NI) have experienced a significant increase in the number of people accessing their services. This trend is likely to continue with the introduction of Welfare Reform. Consequently, the need for tribunal representation has steadily increased as the number of claimants being disallowed benefit has grown, and cases have become more complex.

Realising the need for a tribunal service in light of incoming changes to the welfare system in Northern Ireland, the Council agreed to fund the BCTS for two years. It was managed and delivered by the Belfast Advice Group, a new consortium of advice providers from across Belfast.

The service provides vital support and assistance to clients appealing decisions by the Social Security Agency and can be accessed by anyone living in the city through any of the 21 council-funded advice programmes.

But now this vital support and assistance might come to an end, with no proposed alternative set to replace it. This is extremely worrying.

BCTS helped vulnerable citizens who have been refused welfare to appeal this decision. It supports ill, disabled, and disadvantaged citizens who otherwise would have no support or financial assistance. As welfare reform looms, this funding will be relied upon more than ever. Funding is ending just when the most vulnerable citizens are about to be affected by the impact of welfare reform. Citizens with mental ill-health, or with complex medical needs, will therefore have to navigate the complex process without specialist advice and guidance. This seems unfair, and the lack of foresight in considering an alternative for BCTS in advance of the funding deadline even more so.

Gerry Tubritt, who chairs the Belfast Advice Group, said the body had provided representation at 3,203 appeals, helping people secure benefit entitlement totalling £9.6m.

“The funding that Belfast City Council has provided for this service has really benefited Belfast citizens, and we are very grateful that the council took the initiative to help meet this need…

“Many of those accessing the service are vulnerable, with a range of health problems, as well as physical, mental and learning disabilities.

“The service we provide helps make this (appeals) a much less stressful experience, and ensures that where possible the evidence to demonstrate that people remain entitled to benefit is gathered and presented to those making decisions.”

Mr Tubritt also warned that the number of appeal hearings was set to dramatically increase between now and 2020. The Appeals Service, which administers the process, estimated there would be more than 32,000 such cases in 2017/18, and around 41,000 the following year, as the process of reassessing the 125,000 Disability Living Allowance claimants across Northern Ireland gets underway. To put that figure into some context: in some parts of Belfast, one in five people receives Disability Living Allowance.

SDLP MLA for North Belfast, Nichola Mallon, has called on the Communities Minister Paul Givan and Belfast City Council to urgently reinstate funding for the service.

Ms Mallon said:

“From 31st December, funding to provide specialist Appeal Tribunal support and advice across Belfast is to be cut completely. Over the course of the last three years, this vital service has protected over £9m for vulnerable people across this city that would otherwise have been withdrawn and have left many unable to provide for their families through no fault of their own.

“As a result of the cruellest aspects of welfare reform, which the SDLP stood steadfastly against at the Assembly and Westminster, the Communities Minister has revealed to me that appeals are expected to increase from 12,000 in 2017 to 41,000 in 2019. Despite that huge increase in appeals, the Communities Minister and Belfast City Council have still decided to completely cut funding and close the doors of the vital Belfast Tribunal Service.

“The net result is that many vulnerable people suffering physical and mental ill health will be left to navigate a daunting and complex appeals process without specialist support. That is unacceptable.

“All of this is at a time when taxpayer’s money is being used to fund the £490m RHI black hole and the £13.1m Social Investment Fund overspend. Public money is being used to plaster over the incompetence of this Executive and the most vulnerable are the ones bearing the brunt of it.

“Before Christmas I urgently wrote to the Communities Minister asking him to outline what support he will make available to keep this vital specialist support service going. I, along with the thousands who need this service, await his reply.”

The funding of the service was discussed at the meeting of Belfast City Council’s People and Communities Committee earlier in December 2016. Councillors had agreed then that a letter would be sent to the Department for Communities seeking a meeting with the Minister, which would attended by a cross-party delegation from the Committee.

The matter is likely to be discussed at the next full meeting of the council on 7th January 2017.

People Before Profit councillor Matt Collins proposed a motion calling for the Council to recognise “the important role the service plays in helping people across this city and understand that faced with the coming changes surrounding welfare reform, this service is needed now more than ever“. Cllr Collins’ motion also urges the local authority to continue funding the service until other sources of money can be secured. This motion is expected to be referred to the Council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.

We can only hope that the Minister for Communities, Paul Givan, will agree to meet with the cross-party delegation soon, and that the Council considers this an urgent matter, and begins to consider alternative funding and plans for such a vital and needed service.

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