Advice NI: proposed Department for Communities Budget 2021-22 allocation ‘a bombshell’

Advice NI urges everyone to respond to DfC consultation on proposed £1.5m reduction in funding to the independent advice sector, which will mean 45 job losses and reduced access to advice services for the most vulnerable.
Speaking about the proposed cut to advice services, Bob Stronge, Chief Executive of Advice NI, stated:

This has come as a complete bombshell and a huge blow both in terms of the manner in which it was announced and the impact that it will have in terms of access to independent advice.”

“First and foremost our main concern is for the thousands of vulnerable people who will suffer and may be denied access to independent advice as a result. The 45 staff employed across the independent advice network under this funding deal with some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people and last year they dealt with 126,616 enquires both via the Helpline and via local frontline advice services. The majority of these enquiries were in relation to sick and disabled people needing help with social security benefits including Personal Independence Payments and Employment & Support Allowance. A significant proportion were working age people needing help with the Universal Credit system.”

“In terms of staffing, 13 staff are deployed on the Helpline and 32 staff are deployed in 21 frontline advice organisations across all Council areas in Northern Ireland. All staff have been working flat-out to help people in relation to the social security and welfare reform needs; and staff have moved mountains to continue to provide this service and other assistance to people during the Covid19 pandemic.”

The welfare reform funding can be traced back to the Stormont House Agreement (2015):

“The Executive, in preparing its budget for next year, will provide additional funding for independent advice services in recognition of the complexity of welfare and tax credit changes.”

The Executive’s Draft Budget 2021-22 document sets out the Executive’s proposed spending plans for the period from April 2021 to March 2022. The Department for Communities (DfC) Equality Impact Assessment document details the DfC proposed Draft Budget 2021-22 allocations and how they will impact on the Department’s ability to deliver public services.

The DfC EQIA states:

“The Department’s proposed Budget 2021-22 allocation also includes no allocation for the independent advice sector to support welfare change. This equates to a £1.5m reduction in funding to the advice sector which provides help and support to some of the most vulnerable in our society, including young people, older people and people with disabilities. Lack of funding for the advice sector, is also likely to impact on a number of Section 75 categories.”

Bob Stronge continued:

“The Independent Advice Network is already working at maximum capacity and has stepped up to the plate to help the DfC with its Covid19 response, including running the Covid19 Community Helpline. Advisers have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic and are already exhausted and stressed out and now feel like they have been devalued. The proposal not to prioritise this funding within its budget is very short-sighted, will impact our most vulnerable at a time when they need all the independent advice they can get.

“Indeed if anything we need more advisers not a cut of 45 jobs.”


Advice NI highlighted expected future increases in demand due to: The number of people on the NI claimant count was 58,400 in December 2020, almost double the number recorded in March 2020; Furlough is due to end at end of April 2021, 98,499 on furlough in NI at December 2020; Increase in Universal Credit applications, 114,000 households on Universal Credit at August 2020; Future migration of benefit claimants on to Universal Credit; Planned cuts to the UC £20 per week ‘Covid19 increase’; Social security benefit appeals (5,958 PIP appeals pending).

Advice NI has urged everyone to respond to the DfC EQIA consultation, show their support for the independent advice sector and oppose the funding cuts.
Comments on the Department draft Budget 2021-22 allocation can be submitted via the following:

• Submit your responses online: DfC Draft Budget 21-22 consultation - Equality Impact Assessment Review - NI Direct - Citizen Space
• Email your responses: Budget21-22@ communities-ni.gov.uk 11.4.

The deadline for responses is Thursday 25 February 2021.

Ends

Notes:
  • For further information contact Advice NI CEO Bob Stronge on 07789 756954 or email bob@adviceni.net
  • Advice NI is the umbrella body for the Independent Advice Network in Northern Ireland and its members dealt with 540,983 enquiries in 2019/2020, the majority being social security benefits related.
  • Advice NI’s Freephone helpline number for all our advice services is 0800 915 4604. You can call this number 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday for free and impartial advice on benefits, HMRC products, non-medical Covid-19 matters, the EU Settlement Scheme as well as personal and business debt.