Council votes to challenge cuts to advice services

Fri, 12/02/2021 - 05:39 -- Editor

Members of Derry City and Strabane District Council's Health and Community Committee today voiced concerns that the most vulnerable people could be seriously impacted locally by proposed cuts outlined in the Department for Communities draft budget for 2021-22.

At its monthly meeting, now held virtually, the committee agreed to submit an extensive response to the open consultation on the draft budget which includes a £1.5m reduction to advice services across the region.

Members received a report from Council's Director of Health and Community, Karen McFarland, outlining the details of the consultation as well as the concerns outlined by members of Council's Governance and Strategic Planning Committee, who raised the issue earlier in the month. The draft budget includes a £1.5m drop in funding for welfare mitigations including advice services, a move the committee warned would have a seriously detrimental community impact. According to an equality impact assessment, the draft budget also makes no allocation for commitments made under the New Decade, New Approach Deal.

Members had highlighted the potential impact any reduction in services would have on the vulnerable including across some section 75 groups, as well as the increased pressure on the advice sector which is facing significantly increased demand for advice as a result of the pandemic. They also noted the increased presentation for universal credit support and the backlog in personal independence payments, stressing that additional support should be the focus rather than budget cuts. Members also referenced the likely impact on commitments within the New Decade New Approach should further funding commitments not be confirmed.

The matter was raised at a special Council meeting on Monday where members voted to write to the Departments of Finance and Communities opposing the cuts.

Health and Community members today agreed that a robust submission should be made to the consultation which closes on February 25th. Speaking after the meeting, Chair of the Health and Community Committee, Alderman Darren Guy, said there was a strong case in favour of channelling more support into alleviating pressures on these services.

"Our advice providers have had an essential frontline role during this pandemic and they have been experiencing unprecedented demand for their services since the crisis began. In the current financial year £112,000 was awarded via the community support programme enabling the employment of four additional advice workers who play a critical role and allow for the extension of services as demand begins to surge. This support is vital and any reduction in support will have an immediate detrimental effect, impacting on the most vulnerable people living in our Council area.

"We are not at the end of this crisis, and we can expect further repercussions in the weeks and months to come. We need reassurance from the Minister that the necessary support will be in place when it's needed most."

The Department has undertaken an equality impact assessment on the draft budget proposal and members agreed that a comprehensive response should now be drafted in respect of the matters raised by both committees and the wider strategic comments of Members.

Members pledged that Council would continue to lobby on behalf of the independent advice services and all its community partners over the coming months for an extension to the welfare reform mitigation package as they continue to deliver vital frontline services on behalf of the most vulnerable in our City and District.