Minutes of Proceedings
Date: 09 May 2013
Venue: Room 29, Parliament Buildings
The Chairperson declared the meeting open to the public at 10.00am.
Apologies were as indicated above
The Chairperson noted that David McClarty MLA has been unable to attend Committee meetings since the 14 March due to illness and asked if the Members were content for him to issue a letter on their behalf wishing Mr McClarty a speedy return to health. The Members were content.
2. Regional Infrastructure Support Programme – Volunteering – Ministerial Briefing
The Minister and the following officials from the Department joined the meeting at 10.01am:
• Mr Jack O'Connor, Voluntary and Community Unit
• Ms Tracey Teague, Head of Voluntary and Community Unit
Mr Sammy Douglas MLA joined the meeting at 10.02am
The Chairperson welcomed the Minister and officials. He proceeded to thank the Minister for responding quickly to his letter of 2 May requesting that the departmental leaflets on Welfare Reform were not distributed. He noted, however, that some leaflets had been distributed to North Belfast and South Antrim, despite the Department's efforts to put a hold on distribution.
Mr Mark Durkan MLA joined the meeting at 10.03am.
The Chairperson reminded the Minister and officials that representatives of the volunteer sector had contacted the Committee to indicate that there had been a lack of meaningful engagement with the Department since the termination of the previous approach to support the volunteer infrastructure.
The Minister recognised the importance of the Committee's Scrutiny role and proceeded to brief the Committee on the Regional Infrastructure Support Programme.
Mr Gregory Campbell MLA joined the meeting at 10.04am.
Following the presentation, the Committee asked how the new volunteering scheme would enhance greater collaboration. The principle reason given for the termination of the original approach to the volunteering framework was that there was a lack of collaboration between a number of the stakeholder groups involved and that this had presented a real problem for moving forward. To address this, the Minister had decided on delivery at a sub-regional level.
The Committee asked how an integrated infrastructure could best be delivered. The officials responded that a key action of the strategy was to establish a steering group comprised of representatives from the volunteer community and relevant departments to drive forward the implementation of the strategy.
Members asked whether provision could be made in SSA for people volunteering, as people often lose out on benefits because they are volunteering. The Department advised that they have produced a booklet giving advice on how to approach benefits if you are a volunteer that has been distributed across the SSA volunteering network. The Department will forward this booklet to the Committee.
The Committee highlighted that this can also be a health issue and asked what the Department was doing to ensure a cross-departmental approach was taken. The Minister assured the Committee that representatives from other departments were involved in the steering groups and this would ensure a cross-departmental approach.
The officials highlighted that the innovation fund is one of the most important elements of the strategy and that the Department has been working in collaboration with the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure on this. A number of projects supported by the fund were cited by officials and they agreed to provide the Committee with an update on the progress of these and other projects.
The Committee noted that HMRC is currently investigating the nature of 'unpaid work', and expressed concerns that volunteering could be seen in this light. The Department is to look into these concerns and report back to the Committee.
3. Draft Minutes of Meeting 2 May 2013
Agreed: The minutes of the meeting held on 2 May 2013 were agreed.
4. Chairperson's Business
The Chair informed the Committee that he attended a presentation and meeting with Rt
Hon David Lidington MP, the UK Minister of State for Europe, along with Chairs of the
other Committees. He commented that there was useful engagement at the meeting.
5. Matters Arising
5.1 The Chair noted that the issue of the distribution of a leaflet on Welfare Reform had been brought up with the Minister at the start of the meeting. Regarding the issue of leaflets that had already been distributed, he informed the Committee that the DALO advised that the Department was unable to elaborate on this issue.
5.2 The Chairperson reminded the Committee that, following the meeting on 16 May, there will be a Committee visit to Ballynafeigh Community Development Association. He asked Members to confirm with Committee staff their intention to attend.
5.3 The Chairperson drew the Members' attention to the proposed event on Repossessions to be held in June in association with the Housing Rights Service. He noted that the programme was still evolving and that some speakers were yet to be confirmed but asked if Members were content. The Committee was content with the programme to date.
6. Health Assessment Advisor – Quality Assurance Framework – Departmental Briefing
The following officials from the Department joined the meeting at 10.34am:
• Ms Margaret Boyle, Social Security Agency
• Mr Paddy Rooney, Social Security Agency
The Department briefed the Committee on the Health Assessment Advisor Quality Assurance Framework, put in place to ensure high quality health assessments.
Members expressed concerns over the limitations of tick box forms provided at Health Assessments, citing specific instances where these had proved ineffective. The Department advised that they would be happy to look at specific examples if Members wished.
Members also brought forward concerns that medical papers could be ignored at assessments. The Department responded that the SSA is trying to embed a culture wherein all medical evidence is taken on board at the earliest stage possible to ensure a better informed decision can be taken and that they were intending to proactively seeking evidence, potentially leading to a reduced number of appeals. The Department also noted that it was working closely with customer representation groups including Citizens Advice Bureau and Advice NI to try and ensure that customers provided all the medical evidence available to them.
The Department advised that recent evidence showed that on the basis of 215 'Disallowance Calls', which gave an opportunity for further medical evidence to be provided, 55% of those claims were subsequently allowed. In addition, 65% of all decisions that were appealed were upheld in the Department's favour. The Committee noted that a significant number of the successful appeals were as a result of late medical evidence being submitted, including on the day of the appeal, and that this re-emphasised the Department's approach to obtain all medical evidence as early as possible in the process.
Members of the Committee questioned how complaints made against health care professionals were handled and the Department advised that if a complaint was ever made against an individual, that an investigation would follow.
The Committee asked whether the contracted healthcare professionals were represented only by doctors and nurses or whether mental health experts were also employed. The Department advised that there were Mental Health Champions in place that the assessors can refer to, but that there was no official requirement for them to do so.
Mr Gregory Campbell MLA left the meeting at 11.17am.
The Committee asked whether Atos had targets for how many people are assigned to different groups. The Department advised that they did not set targets for Atos and were not aware of any targets included in the Atos contract. The officials told the Committee that they would look into whether the contract could be made available to the Committee.
The Chairperson thanked the officials for their attendance at the meeting.
The officials left the meeting at 11.33am.
Mr Michael Copeland MLA left the meeting at 11.33am.
Mr Sammy Douglas MLA left the meeting at 11.33am.
7. Housing Strategy Action Plan – Departmental Briefing
The following officials from the Department joined the meeting at 11.33am:
• Dr Heloise Brown, Head of Housing Research, Policy & Legislation
• Ms Deirdre Ward, Deputy Director, Housing Division
The Department briefed the Committee on the Draft Housing Strategy and Draft Action Plan.
The Committee expressed concern that besides the significant work outlined in the Draft Action Plan, there was also a considerable amount of work involved in bringing forward the social housing reform programme and that there was potential for this to impact on other targets in the Plan. The Department acknowledged the possibility of this and their intention to brief the Committee separately on the social housing reform programme as this is such a substantial area.
Members of the Committee expressed the understanding that building standards in the private sector are lower than those of the social housing sector and asked if the aim to ensure building standards were the same in both sectors actually meant a reduction in the standards of social housing builds. The Department advised that they were reviewing the fitness standards across tenures with a particular focus on areas such as health and safety and thermal efficiency.
The Department emphasised that the Action Plan is currently in draft form, with no predetermined outcome, and that they are keen to hear comments back from the Committee to inform the work. It noted that following the Committee's response, and once the action plan is agreed, resources could be assigned appropriately and that each piece of work would have a business case attached to it to bid for resources.
Members of the Committee noted that there had been a delay in the landlords' registration scheme. The officials noted that they were not clear on the reason for the delay, but informed the Committee that they would arrange for a written response on this from the Department.
The Committee emphasised the importance of the regulation of the Private Rented Sector and asked the rationale for not carrying out a review of the sector until 2014 / 15. The Department reiterated that the Action Plan was in draft form and that it was keen to receive comments from the Committee. The Department stated that if the Committee saw this as a particularly important issue, that it could be given greater priority in the Action Plan.
The Committee expressed concern that, while the draft Action Plan was visionary in the short term that it needed to be strategic in the long term. Members also expressed concern over the duration of discretionary housing payment. The Department stated that it would seek clarification on the issue of discretionary housing payment and report back to the Committee.
Members of the Committee asked for an update on the Department's discussions with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety regarding supported living. The Department advised that they had been meeting regularly with the HSSPS Committee and that discussions around domiciliary care are ongoing and emphasised the need for a holistic approach.
The Chairperson thanked the officials for their attendance at the meeting.
The officials left the meeting at 12.05pm.
The Chairperson asked Members to forward comments on the draft Action Plan to Committee officials by 15 May for inclusion in its official response by the Committee on 23 May.
8. Proposed Subordinate Legislation
The Chairperson drew the Committee's attention to the proposed Statutory Rule, The Charities (2008 Act) (Commencement No. 4, Consequential Provision and Savings) Order (Northern Ireland) 2013. He advised the Committee that the Statutory Rule is subject to the negative resolution procedure and that the provisions of the Act will commence from early June 2013.
The Chairperson advised that the Statutory Rule will make it compulsory for all charities in Northern Ireland to sign up to a register of charities, set up and managed by the Charity Commission.
The Members were content for the Statutory Rule to be made and the Chair advised that the Committee would receive a briefing from the Charity Commission at the meeting on 16 May.
Mr Michael Copeland MLA declared his membership of the PAC Committee.
The Chairperson drew Members' attention to a letter from the Public Accounts Committee in relation to Creating Effective Partnerships between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector. The Committee expressed that it is content to schedule a briefing on this.
The Committee was content to agree other correspondence as noted on the correspondence memo.
10. Forward Work Programme
The Committee was content with the proposed Forward Work Programme.
11. Any Other Business
One Member of the Committee expressed concerns over a newly established call centre for benefits and asked that enquiries be made into whether a separate line for elected representatives could be implemented.
12. Date, time and place of next meeting
The next meeting will take place at 10.00am on Thursday 16 May 2013 in Room 29 Parliament Buildings.
The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 12.12pm.