When money is tight, campaigning is more important than ever
The Department for Communities (DfC) is carrying out a public consultation on its budget allocations for this year.
Nothing strange about that. Nonetheless, this isn’t a normal consultation.
The window for members of the public, organisations or indeed anyone to tell the department what they think about their suggested budget opened on May 10. That window closes on August 2. However, “Interested parties are encouraged to make responses by 7 June 2023” – which is today, less than one month after the consultation opened.
Responses that come in fast enough will be “used to inform the Department’s allocation of 2023-24 funds.” Those that arrive between 7 June 2023 and 2 August 2023 “will be used to inform further mitigation measures and reallocation of any additional funding available during 2023-24.”
In other words, this budget is coming in hot.
The introduction to the consultation document is full of what could euphemistically be called context:
“The Department for Communities Budget 2023-24 consultation is published in a situation where Executive departments are collectively facing the most challenging budget in recent history, with pressures of over half a billion pounds in 2023-24…
“In this context, the Department for Communities and its Arms’ Length Bodies face unprecedented funding challenges and cuts in 2023-24. This is being delivered against a backdrop of political uncertainty, inflation, ongoing Industrial Action and during a Cost-of-Living crisis…
“For the Department, the 2023-24 Budget allocations result in a Non-Ring-Fenced Resource funding gap of £111.2m (15.5%) and a £59m (27.3%) shortfall in Capital required for 2023-24.”
And, within that context, one of the major successes (there have been some) from the last decade of Stormont is at risk of vanishing.
Specifically, this is an Equality Impact Assessment (EQIA) consultation. Its purpose is to “to present the decisions required by the Department to live within its 2023-24 Budget allocation and the potential impact to people in Section 75 categories of those decisions on the services and supports the Department provides.”
The protected groups within Section 75 include people of different ages, people with a disability, and people with dependants (and several more groups). Those groups are more likely to rely on the benefits system.
Welfare Reform and the move to Universal Credit began over a decade ago. That migration is still ongoing, but near its end. As the roll out began, many concerns were raised that the new, simplified system (itself a good thing) was unsympathetic, with payments that were broadly too low, and contained several punishing aspects that undermined the security aspect of social security.
The Fresh Start Agreement was signed in 2015. It included a £585m package for welfare mitigations – meaning that Stormont could provide local top ups to the benefit system, which is itself ultimately administered by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) at Westminster.
That package provided for mitigations to continue until March 2020. However, campaign pressure – in particular, from the Cliff Edge Coalition – led to mitigations continuing in some form.
With this new budget, they are once more at risk.
Per the consultation document: “Managing Resource and Capital shortfalls of this magnitude will undoubtedly have a significant and adverse impact on the Department’s ability to deliver public services in 2023-24. It should also be noted that Budget 2023-24 / Equality Impact Assessment the new bids totalling over £375m to progress Ministerial priorities such as new Welfare Mitigations have not been allocated within the 2023-24 Budget settlement against these bids.”
Campaigns are important. Without extensive lobbying, Northern Ireland would never have secured welfare mitigations in the first place.
Advice NI played a crucial role. The organisation is one of the leading members of the Cliff Edge Coalition. It has already provided a response to the DfC’s EQIA consultation (i.e. they got in ahead of today’s soft deadline) – and this response has itself been published online.
The response notes that DfC’s £111.2m budget shortfall is “integral to maintaining the safe delivery of existing social security services” including NI’s mitigation scheme.
Advice NI Chief Executive Bob Stronge said: “Benefit claimants need to be able to rely on the accuracy and timeliness of their payments. It is absolutely unacceptable that budget cuts may put at risk this essential support to people reliant on social security, including those in low paid work.”
“It must be noted that the £111.2m funding ‘gap’ does not include the resources required for any new priorities such as for new Welfare Mitigations. Advice NI can only conclude that the Department’s allocation will put at risk services to those most vulnerable people reliant upon social security…
“We need to protect and strengthen our social security system, not sleepwalk into a situation where people cannot rely on help when they need it most.”
The response also identifies 11 further concerns about the current benefits situation. These range from failure to secure the funding necessary to appropriately resource benefit delivery (which will lead to delays in benefit payment) to withdrawal of funding from third-party organisations (which could include independent advice organisations that help people navigate the benefits system) to reduced funding for social housing.
That all sounds quite grim, but there’s no point in being defeatist. Advice NI certainly isn’t being, otherwise why would they bother responding to the consultation.
The fact is, putting pressure on DfC does have the power to affect its spending decisions, even when the department has such a huge funding shortfall.
In its own consultation document, DfC says: “Sustaining an accessible social security and financial support system and supporting people into employment are a core priority for the Department. The Department’s budget will continue to be deployed in support of this objective…
“The Department would welcome comments on any potential equality implications arising from the 2023-24 Budget and will consider the need for any further mitigating actions in light of responses received during the consultation. Promotion of equality of opportunity and the protection of services to vulnerable groups will be a key consideration in the Department’s final Budget decisions.”
So, yes, campaigns are important. Lobbying is important. If you want to see welfare mitigations continuing in some form, even if that is reduced, then let the Department for Communities know.
The “encouraged” deadline may pass today, but this consultation remains open until early August. The soft deadline is not in place to discourage responses or provide obstacles to feedback. It merely reflects the harshness of the Secretary of State’s imposed budget.
Civil servants are working away during a financial forest fire. Without extra funds from London, they simply won’t be able to support all the initiatives they – or the public – would like. That makes campaigning more important, not less. Sharp elbows can make a difference.
Join the Conversation...
We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.
Join Our Newsletter
Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.