My role, as Commissioner for Children and Young People, is to review legislation, policies and services for children, advise on children’s rights and best interests, and – where necessary – challenge government to deliver more effectively for children.
Over the past few years, we have noted significant changes to the social security system in the UK, under the title of ‘Welfare Reform’. I would like to take a moment to comment on the use of the term ‘reform’ in relation to these policy changes. I have looked at definitions for ‘reform’ and without exception; they suggest changes for the better:
‘To abolish abuse or malpractice’
‘To put an end to a wrong’
‘To improve by alteration’
‘Correction of evils’
I am troubled by the use of the term ‘reform’ in relation to these changes to the social security system as in my assessment, and that of many observers, the changes already being implemented, and those proposed, are far from positive in terms of children’s rights and best interests. Please assume when I do use the word ‘reform’ that I am using ‘inverted commas’ to indicate that this is not my preferred term.
As I have said, changes already introduced are having a detrimental impact on children living in low-income households. Increasing conditionality, for example, has introduced sanctions where parents are not assessed as demonstrating that they have done enough to find work. Since 2010 single parents have been required to seek to return to work when their youngest child is only 7 instead of 12 as it was previously, and last month this age has further dropped to 5. These ‘reforms’ have already been implemented, making things more difficult for many families struggling to meet the needs of their children.
However, the latest set of reforms, passed in March in GB, and due to be introduced at the Assembly, more substantially transform the social security system, and will bring about a much wider range of changes.
It is important to note that some of these are positive. Universal Credit, in essence, is a very positive thing. The UK Government’s stated goal for this is to have a simple structure designed to: provide a basic income for people out of work, covering a range of needs; make work pay as people move into and progress in work; and help lift people out of poverty’.
For many years, I and many others have recognised that the social security system was too complicated and it was very difficult for families to ensure that they were receiving all the benefits they are entitled to. Also, the single benefit taper rate will provide a smoother financial transition as parents move into work.
However, while the stated aim may sound very positive, the underlying motivation behind this transformation is to significantly reduce the social security bill by Billions across the UK. In Northern Ireland this is likely to be hundreds of millions removed from low income families and from our economy – some have estimated this at around £600 million lost from the annual social security budget. In many ways these ‘reforms’ appear to be designed for an expanding economy, rather than one in recession, where jobs are extremely scarce.
Last November I, along with the other three Children’s Commissioners in Wales, Scotland and England, produced a ‘mid-term’ report on progress to date in relation to key Concluding Observations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2008 on the UK State Report. In this we highlighted our concern at how the UK and devolved governments were delivering on their statutory duties to reduce child poverty and raised in particular the retrogressive changes proposed through the then Welfare Reform Bill.
My alarm was further raised by the Equality Impact Assessment produced by DSD on how ‘Welfare Reform’ would be rolled out in Northern Ireland. I was left with two broad concerns. Firstly, that children appeared to be invisible in the considerations, largely as they were not direct recipients of benefits. Secondly, there appeared to be little or no appetite to vary from what was being implemented in Britain due, it was explained, to a requirement for ‘parity’ in the social security system across the UK.
I determined at that point to seek to bring a focus to the impact of ‘Welfare Reform’ on children and to challenge the presumption that there was little or no room for adapting these in the best interests of children. To this end I have commissioned two reports, which we are launching today, and which will be presented shortly. I hope that these will inform the debates as the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Bill is introduced in the Assembly in coming weeks.
I am very pleased that The Chair of the Committee for Social Development, Alex Maskey MLA, has agreed to co-host this event with me today. The Committee will have a critical role in scrutinising the forthcoming Bill and it is reassuring to see the evident commitment of the MLAs on the Committee to undertake these duties diligently.
I will now hand over now to Alex to say a few words.
I mentioned in my opening comments how the Equality Impact Assessment on the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Bill had alerted me to the need to draw attention to the rights and best interests of children in relation to these proposals.
EQIAs are critical to the section 75 duty on government departments to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between the nine categories of people. They should, if conducted properly, determine if there are adverse impacts on any of these groups, and consider measures, which might mitigate any adverse impact.
I was concerned that the EQIA had failed to consider all the section 75 groups and, in particular, that under the category of ‘Age’ there was not a proper consideration of the data and research with regard to the impact on children. This focussed solely on different ages of direct recipients of welfare. This was despite the acknowledgement throughout the document that
‘It is expected that the majority of households affected by the policy will have children.’
In failing to consider the impact on children, the EQIA also failed to consider measures to mitigate any adverse impact on children, or alternative policies that might better achieve promotion of equality of opportunity. Neither did it consider the impacts of these policy proposals on different categories of children, for example on children with disabilities, ethnic minority children, young carers.
When I raised this with the Minister for Social Development, his response was that there was very little data that would allow the impact on children to be assessed. I don’t believe this to be the case and to address this I commissioned a Child Rights Impact Assessment of the Welfare Reform proposals.
This work has been undertaken by Marina Monteith of the Children and Youth Programme at the UNESCO Centre, University of Ulster, and Goretti Horgan, who is based at the Policy Unit of ARK and the Institute for Research in Social Sciences, also at the University of Ulster.
Marina Monteith is the Policy Analyst within the Children and Youth Programme team at UNESCO Centre, University of Ulster. Marina has worked in the children’s sector for 17 years in both academic and voluntary organisations and during the last 8 years has focused on child poverty research and analysis. She was the co-author of early child poverty reports ‘The Bottom Line: Severe Child Poverty’ and the OFMDFM research ‘Child and Family Poverty in NI’ (along with the late Professor McLaughlin) and more recently the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report “What can we do to tackle child poverty in Northern Ireland?’ with Goretti Horgan.
Many thanks to Goretti and Marina for that informative and considered presentation. I am sure that a number of you will have questions or comments on what you have heard, but I would ask you to hold these until you have heard our second presentation, after which there will be time for questions and comments.
In introducing Marina and Goretti I explained how their report was commissioned as a result of the Equality Impact Assessment not adequately assessing the impact of the proposals on children.
At the same time as I commissioned the Child Rights Impact Assessment, I also commissioned a second report, which explored the background to the ‘parity principle’ to provide a context for discussing potential variations in how the Welfare Reform provisions will be implemented in Northern Ireland compared to the rest of the UK.
As you all, no doubt, will be aware, in Northern Ireland, social security matters are devolved, which requires separate legislation and implementation measures. However, the ability of the Northern Ireland Executive to determine its own approach to welfare provision is severely constrained by the ‘parity principle’. This was explained by the Department for Social Development in its EQIA on the Welfare Reform (NI) Bill thus:
‘the long standing principle of parity dictates that an individual in Northern Ireland will receive the same benefits, under the same conditions, as an individual elsewhere in the United Kingdom.’
Later the particular constraints were outlined, referring to computer systems and financial penalties, and the Department concluded that, as a result of these constraints,
‘anydeparture from parity needs to be given the most careful and detailed consideration.
The ‘parity principle’ has been alluded to quite a bit in discussions to date in relation to implementing Welfare Reform proposals, mostly to argue that the Executive has little choice but to implement the same changes as contained in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 which applies to GB.
In general, the ‘parity principle’ is referred to in a reasonably vague way, not providing detailed information that can be used to inform debates on the degree to which flexibility can be applied when implementing a Northern Ireland particular form of ‘Welfare Reform’. We need to know, as we move forward, what the specific impact will be of doing things differently.
To help inform this debate, I commissioned Barry Fitzpatrick and Professor Noreen Burrows to produce a paper exploring the parity principle in welfare and wider social policy. We asked them to outline the constitutional and practical context to parity, the factors that need to be considered when considering breaking parity and to provide recommendations on how parity can be discussed in relation to Welfare Reform. Professor Burrows has provided a useful input in relation to how parity is applied in Scotland.
While Professor Burrows is not with us today, Barry Fitzpatrick will present the report to us now. Barry Fitzpatrick is a law and policy consultant. He is a qualified solicitor who previously had an academic career in England and as a Professor of Law at the University of Ulster. He has also been Head of Legal Policy and Advice at the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland and has held a number of positions in the advice and community and voluntary sectors. He has been a part-time Chairman of Industrial Tribunals and is Acting Chairman of the Industrial Court.
Thanks Barry for that interesting exploration of the parity principle.
Now is your opportunity to ask questions of our speakers, both our report authors and Alex Maskey, in his role as Chair of the Social Development Committee. We have 30 minutes for this, and I would ask that you try to keep your questions brief and specify if you are directing them to a particular person.
There is a roving microphone and I would ask you to tell us your name and the organisation you are representing before moving on to your question.
The purpose of this seminar was to provide a timely input to key stakeholders in relation to the impact of Welfare reform proposals on children in Northern Ireland, and to explore the potential for variation.
I hope you will agree that the speakers, and the reports they have produced for us, have provided very thoughtful and useful inputs that we can use to inform the debate as the forthcoming Bill is considered by the Assembly.
As Commissioner for Children and Young People I will, of course, be seeking to provide advice to the Minister for Social Development and Assembly in relation to children’s rights and best interests. I have provided the Minister with these reports and shall meet with him to discuss them. I will also engage proactively with the Committee and Assembly more generally as they consider the forthcoming Bill.
My recommendations on the back of these reports will include the following:
Firstly – that the Northern Ireland Executive must consider carefully the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, given that the GB Welfare Reform Act has been developed for a different political, administrative and social context.
Marina and Goretti’s report provides ample evidence of how the different Northern Ireland context will mean that the impact of the ‘reforms’ will not be the same, and in many cases will have a significantly negative impact. The differences in NI housing stock and childcare provision were striking examples of the dangers of policies designed for an English context being applied to a Northern Ireland context.
Secondly, the Executive must consider what policy divergences they want to make. As Barry and Noreen have pointed out, if devolution is only about – at best – applying English or GB policies to NI through NI legislation, this falls far short of what people in Northern Ireland can reasonably expect.
Certainly, the implications of any changes will have to be carefully considered – and quantified in terms of costs. Barry and Noreen’s model of the four areas for consideration in relation to breaking parity will be useful in these discussions.
Thirdly, we will call on the Executive to clearly state that children should not be disadvantaged through the implementation of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Bill. It is not enough to say that parent’s benefits will be reduced or that these changes apply to direct welfare recipients. In the end, this is about children. Children who already going without basic necessities because their parents can’t afford them. At a time of recession, low income families – both those in work and out of work – will be hugely impacted by these so-called ‘reforms’, and many who are currently just about managing, will be pushed beyond their ability to cope.
We all must speak up for these families and for the children within them.
Finally, I will clearly state that time must be given to consider all these issues and that the Bill should not be rushed through the Assembly without careful scrutiny. The Executive must not push this through by the ‘accelerated passage’ procedure.
I am pleased to see so many from the voluntary and community sector here. You will be critical in supporting families and children who will be affected by these changes, and in holding the Executive to account to protect vulnerable children and their families from draconian cuts in their incomes. I hope you will find these reports useful in your advocacy work.
I am also pleased to see many departmental officials here – from a range of departments. The challenge facing the Department for Social Development is great, both just in terms of the radical nature of the changes to the systems, but also in finding ways to adapt things to fit our context when practically implementing these changes. I welcome opportunities to engage with the Department and officials from other departments when considering these issues.
Finally, I am pleased that key MLAs have found the time to attend this seminar. A grave responsibility lies on your shoulders – particularly those of you who sit on the Committee for Social Development whose responsibility it is to closely scrutinise the forthcoming Bill clause by clause. I hope these reports will be useful to you in particular and I will be pleased to provide advice in relation to the specific content of the Bill when it is introduced.
I will now hand over to Alex Maskey, to provide us with his closing comments.
You can find out more on the Welfare Reform Report Launch below: