Ballynahinch,Newcastle & Cookstown Social Security & Job Centre Closures. Will Government Ministers Publish Their Consultation Response.

imagerMost people living in the areas affected by Job Centre & SSA office closures are at least aware that the proposed closures are out to consultation until November 15th. Unfortunately most people are unaware of the potential impact these closures will have on them or family members. There is an assumption that because many people currently don’t use their local office on a regular basis, that it will have little impact on them. With the introduction of Universal Credit there will be a significant increase in need as people on a multitude of benefits from Carers to Working Tax Credits will be affected. The sick & disabled, older citizens and their carers will be affected. The most adversely affected, based on U.K figures are Lone Parents on Working Tax Credits.

The Dept for Communities have primary responsibility for these proposals and have a responsibility to consult key stakeholders and the wider public. They will undoubtedly have sent formal letters to each government department and PROBABLY Government funded bodies and interest groups in the affected areas.

So far I have only seen responses from NIPSA, a Rural Screening from the Dept for Agriculture,Environment & Rural Affairs, an Equality Impact Screening and some positive (but not formal) support from political reps. In addition many members of the public have signed petitions and the only questions raised on the matter were from Patsy McGlone MLA.

This is simply not good enough and we have the right to demand more from Our political representatives on such a serious issue.

I would like to see the list of Ministers, Councils, Government funded bodies and Interest groups that were invited to respond, and I would invite them to publish their responses in order to inform the public of the impact this will have across Government Departments and in their local area.

I find it incredible that the Department for Health,Social Services have not been more vocal on the potential impacts. When you consider the impact on people with physical and mental health issues who will be affected. When people with severe disabilities and their carers will be required to attend Work Focused Interviews. When Lone Parents regardless of their children’s age or medical condition, will be required to attend Work Focused Interviews.Excluding the main urban centres, this area has the highest rate of people with Disability Benefits, Learning Difficulties and receiving Prescription Drugs. Can the Department publish their response?

The Department for Infrastructure may also want to publish their response as the proposed closures will mean the public will have to use Public Transport to access services (Ballynahinch, Newcastle) in either Lisburn, Downpatrick or Knockbredagh. Anyone using the existing offices and from Ballynahinch, Newcastle and the surrounding rural catchment areas will be aware that there is currently a very limited Public Transport service to either of the proposed new offices. They would also be aware of the cost. With that in mind it is not unreasonable to request what the Department have said formally in response to the consultation. In addition, if reliant upon Public Transport, it is all but impossible for anyone from Ballynahinch to use anywhere other than Knockbredagh as it is the only office with a regular bus route. In responding to the consultation will the Minister confirm when the Ballynahinch Bypass is scheduled for completion as when completed the bus frequency to Knockbredagh would be significantly reduced. Can the Minister publish his response?

Department of Education: Young people who are still in full time education & higher education do use the local Job Centre to explore potential employment opportunities and discuss future employment prospects with Job Centre Advisors. There are several Schools and Further Education Colleges in the affected areas and these students, their teachers and careers advisors will be impacted. Will the Minister publish a response?

Department of Agriculture,Environment & Rural Affairs: The Department have claimed to carry out a Rural Proofing Screening. From media accounts this consisted of  a few phone calls. In any event, given the massive adverse impacts expected on rural dwellers, a full Rural Proofing Exercise is required. Accessibility alone is a huge issue that must be addressed. In response to a question from Patsy McGlone MLA the Minister for Communities has already acknowledged adverse impacts. It is essential that the Agriculture Minister  consult with key stakeholders to obtain a formal response. The Mourne, Gullion & Lecale Partnership which is funded by the Rural Development Programme is made up of 13 Social Partners & 12 elected reps from Newry, Mourne & Down Council and are well placed to provide data on potential impacts. The County Down Rural Community Network are also in a position to identify local impacts as they are made up of local community reps who deal with local people on a daily basis. There are many more groups in the affected areas that are Government funded and in a unique position to inform the Department of local impacts. Will the Minister confirm that these groups have been consulted? Will the Minister publish the Departments response? Will the Minister publish the consultation responses of the above named organisations which are accountable to the Minister and more importantly the public?

Department of Finance: the Department own the offices proposed for closure and I would hope have received a business case, including costings, projected savings  and projected financial impact of the roll out of Universal Credit. It is not unreasonable to ask what the Department propose to do with the vacant properties or what concerns they may have on projected impacts. Do the Department accept the figures presented in the consultation are accurate given that they were collated by a now defunct department (DSD), they are outdated, do not reflect the current footfall at these offices or the potential increased footfall when Universal Credit is introduced. Have the Department considered/measured the potential impact of eving the EU, when it is generally accepted that the north will be disproportionately affected. Will the Minister Publish a Formal response to this consultation.

The Minister for Communities proactively seek the formal responses of his Ministerial colleagues? Will the Minister publish the list of stakeholders who have been individually invited to participate/respond to the consultation? Will the Minister put a freeze on staff transfer requests from the offices proposed for closure? Would the Minister agree that with the uncertainty of brexit, now is not the time to propose changes when we have no idea what adverse impacts may arise?

Civil Rights 2016 – The Issues Remain. Can We Put People Before Profit.

I read a post on Facebook today by one of the leaders of the original Civil Rights Movement – Eamonn McCann MLA.  The post was intended to highlight discrimination against Eamonn and his People Before Profit colleague Gerry Carroll by the Assembly Speaker. Both Assembly members were refused speaking rights on a motion on of all things Transparency & Accountability.

You know your doing something right when the system is afraid to let you speak, but I couldn’t help but wonder what sanction they could impose if you refused to be silenced. A few days out of the chamber or better still an apology, because at least with an apology you would have the opportunity to explain why. Just a thought that stems from the old civil disobedience days.

Eamonns article however went on to explain that he had wanted to raise the issue of the continued destruction of the Housing Executive. A process that has went unchallenged for several years, while the Executive have been stripped of powers in favour of Housing Associations. Housing Associations that have limited regulations and many of them acquire charitable status to disguise the fact that they are private sector companies.

I can imagine this is one of many issues close to Eamonns heart as the Housing Executive was created through pressure from the civil rights movement. The original civil rights movement changed politics and the society we live in with a fair amount of success, but the demands of that time met the needs of that time.

Reading the article today I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a need for a new civil rights movement designed to meet the needs of today. A civil rights movement  that demands an end to the privatisation of health, housing,education and infrastructure to name a few.

I wonder do people know when they say ” Save Our NHS ” do they realise that the bulk of services have already been privatised. Do they know that Care In The Community is outsourced to Charitable and Not for Profit organisations that pay frontline employees the minimum wage with no contracts or employee rights, while the Executive boards are paid obscene wages and expenses. Do people realise it would cost less to provide these same services directly through the NHS. I could go on, not just about Health or Social Housing, but about the multitude of failings that are not only unfair but also cost us financially and in quality of service.

I do feel there is valid grounds to reform the civil rights movement and that a series of demands be agreed. If this is led/facilitated by Eamonn McCann and People Before Profit, it would be appropriate.

For my own part and I’m only one person, I would demand that all Health Services are provided by fully trained, contracted public sector staff.

That the Housing Executive build, allocate and manage all social housing. That they take over the management of all Housing Association projects, and no further government funding is provided to Housing Associations. In the short term all allocations should go directly through the Housing Executive . This is supposed to happen now but we all know it doesn’t. That the Executive be given the same powers of borrowing against the assets they hold, in order to provide new builds and meet demand.

That Public/Private building of schools, further education and all public buildings is abolished. A local example is three further education colleges in Newcastle, Downpatrick & Ballynahinch. All within a 10 mile radius and SERC admitted they had no use for at least one (Ballynahinch) but were stuck with it as it was part owned by the builders. I eventually got them to use it as a Media College, but it had lay dormant for two years.

That Special Needs Units are reopened in areas of need. Most Special Needs Units were closed by 2006 and children who were ill equipped to cope in mainstream schools were forced to do so. In addition Special Needs Classroom Assistants were replaced with general Assistants. This should be available as an option as some parents prefer mainstream schooling but as things stand that choice has been removed.

That you are eligible to vote at 16. A renewed electoral registration drive occurs annually, targeting residences with no registered voters and young people. Young people receive their National Insurance number automatically at 16. Why can that data not be shared with the Electoral Office, who could then automatically include them on the Electoral Register.

That University Students education fees are reduced and in some cases abolished. That students receive full grant aid, particularly medical students. This  may seem unaffordable at first glance, but we are educating our children to be an export while claiming ( Health Trusts) that they can’t recruit doctors to work in our hospitals, particularly rural hospitals. If medical students were offered free education in return for a fixed period of fully paid service at home, I believe a significant number would never leave.

That all Public/Private bodies fully adhere to the Section 75 Equality legislation. At present the most serious offenders are Government Departments and Councils just about know the legislation exists. That Public bodies do more than acknowledge Sect 75 impacts and take action to correct them, rather than say they will continue to monitor them.

That there is a fixed timeframe for the establishment of a Bill of Rights for the north. Particularly important when we exit the EU and are no longer protected by ECHR .

That Gay Marriage legislation is passed in the Assembly within a fixed timeframe or a referendum is held.

That a woman’s right to choice on abortion is protected by law.

That the PSNI through the Department of Justice deal with criminal activity as and when it occurs, not when it is politically convenient. Breaking the law is breaking the law, it is not a political issue.

That Stormont and Councils prioritise spending on services they are legally obliged to provide, namely basic services. At present the spend priority is getting Councillors reelected. Basic infrastructure is inadequate and basic services and facilities are underfunded in order to placate the dominant political parties.

I could go on forever and present any amount of evidence, but I’m sure some people will add to the list. I’m also certain many will find fault or disagree with some of the suggestions, but I suspect that while many will disagree, there is a large section of the community who feel angry, disillusioned and abandoned by the system.

To return to Eamonn McCanns article this morning, he spoke of the irony of not being allowed to speak in a debate about transparency. It is also a very sad irony that one of the greatest victories of the civil rights movement was the right to vote, yet we have 50% of the population who choose not to.if you include the approximately 200k people removed from the register at the start of this century, then we’ve less than half the population voting and in doing so, dictating how the majority of the population live.

If a fraction of those non voters were suddenly motivated to vote for candidates who want to change the system, they could have the majority political alliance in stormont and in the councils. Change is needed and it is not impossible. Change is only impossible when you do nothing.