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
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 PrincipleOn the Agenda or in the Firing Line"
available on www.aiac.net) 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 positionwill be
most likely to have problems in opening an accountfor 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 providersfrom 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
2 September 2003