Systemic failures to guarantee human rights during social security assessments is causing widespread denial of benefits and increased poverty and mental ill-health.
Research carried out during the summer of 2021 has revealed the routine failure of the Department for Communities and private contractors to provide basic information to claimants during assessments - such as the criteria used to determine whether they qualify for support.
Keeping people 'in the dark’
Frontline advice workers from East Belfast Independent Advice Centre, Advice North West and Advice NI teamed up with Right to Work: Right to Welfare (R2W) and PPR to take a snapshot of the impact of ‘welfare reform’ and the continued failure of Stormont to put basic human rights safeguards in place during the social security decision making process.
The research, which was conducted at advice centres with people accessing support services, indicated that 80% of social security claimants did not understand the assessment. This rose to a staggering 98% for claimants of Universal Credit.
The findings also found that 83% had not been provided with the criteria they were being assessed against:
“dedicated to a rights-based approach to social security”
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA has said she is “dedicated to a rights-based approach to social security”. The findings of the Sounding the Alarm report, based on surveys conducted in leading advice organisations, challenge the Minister to act on these statements urgently.
PPR support the Right to Work: Right to Welfare Campaign to monitor how government is delivering on human rights obligations. We have supported campaigners to write to the Minister on numerous occasions in recent months regarding the serious concerns raised in the Sounding the Alarm report. The lack of response is a worrying indicator of how serious the Minister and the Department are about human rights and equality, now and in future.
The Stormont administration is obligated under international law to ensure that people are clear about how to access benefits and the thresholds they must meet during any social security assessment:
“Qualifying conditions for benefits must be reasonable, proportionate and transparent.” - UNCESRC, General Comment 19, para 24.
“The system should be established under national law and ensure the right of individuals and organizations to seek, receive and impart information on all social security entitlements in a clear and transparent manner.” - UNCESRC, General Comment 19, para 26.
Such basic and fundamental protections are being violated daily by the Department for Communities current approach, and the impact is hitting hardest on those already struggling the most in our society.
The People’s Proposal is a human rights checklist designed for social security decision makers that is endorsed by all 11 local councils and every major political party and trade union.
If the Minister implemented the People's Proposal checklist it would empower front-line decision makers working in the Department for Communities to guarantee due process and an impact assessment BEFORE decisions are made to stop or reduce the income of low paid workers, disabled people and unemployed people.
The Department for Communities has the power to implement the People’s Proposal without permission from Westminister.
However, to date, the Minister and her officials have not taken any measures to adopt these basic protections despite a series of committments and meetings with human rights campaigners and lead advice agencies since September 2020.
The People’s Proposal will not eliminate the poverty caused by welfare reform. It is a modest set of proposals for modest protections requiring modest changes in the administration of social security assessments locally.
Modest changes providing important protections shouldn’t be so hard to secure from a Minister “dedicated to a rights-based social security system”.
So why are they?
Details of the People’s Proposal and research findings can be read in full in the Sounding the Alarm report
Seán Brady is Assistant Director of Programmes with PPR.