Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the Association of Independent Advice Centres (AIAC) (CP 03)


  The independent advice sector in Northern Ireland is made up of a wide range of organisations that provide a range of generalist or specialist advice and information services for clients. Typical examples of such organisations include resource centres, community development organisations, women's centres, dedicated advice centres and specialist organisations that provide support for a range of social groups including the disabled, older people and lone parents.

  All of these organisations provide a diverse range of frontline advice services, tackling poverty and social deprivation within a broad community development context. Indeed it is this diversity which makes the independent sector so effective in targeting need and addressing the concerns of disadvantaged or socially excluded individuals or communities.

  AIAC exists to support, co-ordinate and promote the work of members through the provision of tailored membership services that are available to assist members with the development of their advice services. Our aim is to be flexible and imaginative to ensure we are effective in meeting the needs of individual members. Ultimately our aim is to represent the interests of members at all levels and to ensure that we work hand in hand to develop a dynamic, cohesive and effective independent advice sector.


  1.  There is always a balance to be struck between encouraging benefit claimants to move into paid employment and providing adequate support for claimants while they are in receipt of benefit.

  2.  In our view the Government has taken a "work focused" approach, concentrating primarily on "making work pay" and using employment as the principal means of tackling child poverty. However, in taking this approach, there is a concern that families on benefits are being left behind. In the body of this response we have identified some areas where effective action could be taken to address this situation.

  3.  In general terms, just as government would urge those on benefits not to have a phobia about working, government itself should not have a phobia about seeking to improve the quality of life for those people on benefits.

  4.  There is also a concern that child poverty remains an issue for the "waged poor", with a particular focus being those in low paid employment. A significant increase in the National Minimum Wage would help to address this situation.


  5.  Focussing on families in receipt of social security benefits, there are a number of areas which could be addressed which would impact directly on child poverty.

  6.  In much the same way as winter fuel payments have helped address the issue of fuel poverty among older people, there is an opportunity to directly impact upon child poverty by providing financial support at critical times of need. The Sure Start Maternity Grant is an example of this but we feel that this principle could be extended to cover other key life events involving children.

  7.  Obviously children should be adequately fed and clothed as a minimum requirement. Spending on food can budgeted on a weekly basis but it is often more difficult for families on benefit to budget for clothing for their children. Clothing can be a substantial expense (particularly in this age of designer labels) and assistance towards the cost of clothing for children would be welcome. There are various options for how this might be implemented including (i)  allowance becomes automatically available for all children whose parents are in receipt of the appropriate benefits; (ii)  allowance becomes available for children over the age of five years of age whose parents are in receipt of the appropriate benefits; (iii)  reduced allowance for younger children to take account of possibility of some clothing being passed from one child to another.

  8.  The list of exclusions for which a Community Care Grant application can be made, should in our view be reviewed, with a view to allowing access for assistance with educational need. At the very least there needs to be co-ordination between the educational authorities and Social Fund in order that sufficient resources are available for the poorest children in order that they can meet basic educational requirements for example in terms of a school uniform.

  9.  The function of Budgeting Loans should be reviewed. Budgeting Loans can be offered to applicants and, as opposed to Community Care Grants, these Loans require repayment via deductions from benefit. These deductions further reduce the families already restricted income, therefore any family repaying a Budgeting Loan fall below the minimum standard set by government, namely the Income Support level. Whilst these Loans do provide financial support at zero per cent interest, the deductions can have a significant impact on the budget of these low income families.

  10.  Also the amounts awarded by the Social Fund should be reviewed. Where these amounts are insufficient, applicants can be forced to seek money from other sources. Due to problems accessing credit, these can be disreputable sources such as money lenders, who can charge excessive interest. Often such money lenders are known to hold the benefit books (often the Child Benefit book in past years) to ensure repayment.

  11.  The issue of lone parents aged 16-18 in receipt of IS requires attention in our view. The personal allowance for the claimant is reduced by over £20/or over £10. A similar situation exists for couples aged under 18. In our view the allowance should be comparable to that of lone parents aged over 18/couples aged over 18. Any differentiation is bound to impact upon the child/ren, particularly considering the amounts of money involved.

  12.  This issue is in relation to young parents, and surely such young people should be given as much support as possible, and not penalised for having children.

  13.  Benefits sanctions, for example failure to carry out a job seeker's direction, impacts upon the whole family and again there needs to be a balance between "encouraging" people to move into employment and ensuring that these people are adequately supported while on benefit. Previous AIAC Social Policy Papers ("New Deal for Disabled People" and "The Contributory Principle—On the Agenda or in the Firing Line" available on indicate that the focus may be too heavily weighted in favour of moving people off benefits rather than firstly ensuring that people are adequately provided for on benefit. We would argue that often the issue is not as straightforward as moving people into employment. There needs to be an acceptance that some people will need further assistance and support to gain the skills necessary to move into employment.


  14.  The introduction of Tax Credits for children may have a reduced impact for those families who do not have a bank account. The Inland Revenue needs to be taking steps to inform and encourage such claimants about the process. Clearly those people on the margins of society and already in the most excluded, vulnerable and disadvantaged position—will be most likely to have problems in opening an account—for example because of identification and verification difficulties. For example, those in No Fixed Abode and those without photographic identification (namely passport or driving licence) will encounter particular difficulties. For these people, the Tax Credit initiatives may not have as significant an impact as might have been hoped.

  15.  Obviously the impact of making work pay would have a greater impact with a higher National Minimum Wage and such a step would not only make work more attractive, but might also directly reduce government spending by reducing spending on Housing Benefit, and could indirectly reduce social security spending by making work a more attractive option.

  16.  In relation to child poverty, a move into paid employment can have a positive impact. However, where there are children in the household, the issue of affordable childcare provision is obviously important. It might be argued that the other partner could look after the children but this may not necessarily be possible: (i)  the parent may not have a partner; (ii)  one partner may already be in work and the other partner may wish to move into employment; (iii)  Government policy is now focussing on claimants and their partners.

  17.  Linked to the childcare issue, there may be a real opportunity for individuals to set themselves up as childcare providers—from a "start your own business" perspective. With this in mind, there should be a review of the process for registering childcare providers. A more straightforward process might have the two-fold impact of (i) increasing childcare provision and (ii) being a business opportunity for families on benefit.

Kevin Higgins

2 September 2003

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