Minutes of Proceedings
Date: 30 May 2013
Venue: Room 29, Parliament Buildings
The Chairperson declared the meeting open to the public at 10.09am.
Apologies were as indicated above
2. Chairperson's Business
2.1 The Chairperson informed the Committee that he has been invited to attend the CIH CEO/Directors dinner on 5 June but is unable to attend. He advised that the evening would offer and opportunity to explore a range of housing issues and that Simon Hamilton, Permanent Secretaries from DSD and DOE, Housing Professionals and Financiers would be in attendance. The Chair asked if another Member of the Committee would like to attend in his place.
It was agreed that Members would confirm their intention to attend the event with Committee staff by noon on Monday 3 June.
2.2 The Chairperson reminded Members that there will be an informal meeting with RNIB immediately following this week's Committee meeting and asked that Members stay behind to attend.
3. Draft Minutes of the Meeting 23 May
Agreed: The minutes of the meeting held on 23 May 2013 were agreed.
4. Matters Arising
4.1 The Chairperson noted that the Department has written to the Committee regarding a proposed Legislative Consent Memorandum on the Mesothelioma Bill and advised that this was raised at last week's meeting, following a meeting he had with Association of British Insurers and Stratagem.
The Chairperson advised that, if the Minister receives Executive Approval, a Legislative Consent Memorandum will be laid with the Business Office next week.
5. June 2013 Monitoring Round – Departmental Briefing
The following officials from the Social Security Agency joined the meeting at 10.10am:
• Stephen McMurray, Director of Finance, DSD
• Damien Carragher, DSD
The officials briefed the Committee on June 2013 Financial Monitoring Round.
Pam Brown MLA joined the meeting at 10.18am.
Members of the Committee queried why finances could not be redirected to tackle the issue of high levels of homelessness in NI by allowing housing associations to build more homes. The officials responded that housing associations had indicated that they had difficulty spending their budget for new builds and were therefore not in a position to bid for additional resources for new build activity. There was therefore no bid submitted for resources dedicated to social housing. A bid of £15m has been made to fund Co-Ownership. The officials assured the Committee that the Department would consider any bids it was to receive.
The Committee queried whether the Department had engaged with all housing associations to ascertain their capacity to build more homes on the basis of a successful bid for resources being made. The Department responded that they had engaged with them through the Northern Ireland Federation of Housing Associations (NIFHA) and the response was clear that housing associations could not utilize additional funding to build more homes.
The Committee expressed serious concerns that even though there was considerable demand for social housing and potential to obtain additional funding to address this demand, housing associations were unable to take advantage of this opportunity.
The Committee requested that the Department provide all correspondence between itself and NIFHA relating to the housing associations' inability to spend their allotted budget on new builds. Members of the Committee also requested a geographical breakdown of co-ownership housing. The Department agreed to provide this information.
The Committee emphasised that housing needs are not being met and that it was important to get information on why housing associations are struggling to spend their budget for building new homes.
Members of the Committee asked whether the £3m earmarked for surrender could not have been redirected towards funding advice services. The department responded it was possible that the surrendered money could be used for this purpose.
Members of the Committee queried whether the £7.2m from the 'Get Britain Building' initiative had been transferred or was yet to be transferred. The Department said that it had been transferred and would be distributed amongst three housing associations over the next few months. This money would need to be paid back by 2020.
Members of the Committee expressed concern over money being used by housing associations to renovate vacant houses to sell on to private tenants and that these could potentially be sold to property investors. The Department agreed to investigate what guidelines or regulations existed to ensure that such properties were not bought by investors.
The Committee expressed concern at so much money being handed back from the budget and over the Department's apparent inability to redirect efficiency savings to address outstanding maintenance requirements for NIHE tenants, particularly considering the current backlog of maintenance cases. The Committee emphasised its concern that estimated savings from efficiencies were not factored into forward planning to ensure that additional maintenance could be carried out.
The officials left the meeting at 10.49am.
This session was recorded by Hansard.
6. Social Economy Enterprise – Departmental Briefing
The following officials from the SSA joined the meeting at 10.50am:
• Tracey Teague, Head of Voluntary and Community Unit, DSD
• Roy McGivern, VCU, DSD
• David Armstrong, Partner, PricewaterhouseCoopers
The officials briefed the Committee on the Social Economy Enterprise update report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, by way of a pre-brief to the launch of the full report. The officials emphasised that the Third Sector was important, not just because of its central importance to the community, but also due to its scale in terms of potential employment.
This briefing was followed by a question and answer session.
The Chairperson commented that the Committee looked forward to receiving copies of the final report and commended the joined up approach that the Department had taken with DETI. He asked for an update on the departmental co-sponsored master-classes from last year.
The officials responded that four master-classes had been running up to the end of the last calendar year and that, although that contract had ended, that DETI has funded Social Enterprise NI to deliver further master-classes.
The Committee commented on the need for the voluntary sector to have a bigger and more participative role and that more money was required for this sector. Officials commented that the voluntary sector had suggested a number of ideas for Transforming Your Care NI and that a partnership approach had been widely suggested in the study, highlighting the need for inter-departmental cooperation.
The Committee commented on the fact that the briefing recommended establishing a database of Third Sector organisations and queried whether this did not already exist. The officials responded that the Government Funders database already existed, but was not comprehensive as it does not include organisations that do not receive government funding.
The Committee commented that the encouragement displayed for organisations to become Social Enterprises may be regarded as an excuse to reduce funding to the sector. The officials agreed that there was some cynicism in the Third Sector around the idea of 'promoting sustainability', but that others saw opportunity.
The officials commented that the ETI Committee had not yet been briefed on the report, but that it would receive a briefing. The Committee agreed to send a copy of the briefing to the ETI Committee. The officials confirmed that the report would be released in the second week of June.
The officials left the meeting at 11.14am
7. Incapacity Benefit and Income Support Reassessment – Briefing by Social Security Agency
The following officials from SSA joined the meeting at 11.15am:
• Margaret Boyle, SSA
• Terry Park, Department for Employment and Learning
The officials provided the Committee with a briefing on the Incapacity Benefit Reassessment Process. This was followed by a question and answer session.
The Committee commented on the fact that, out of 9134 appeals following Work Capability Assessments (WCA), only 2442 appeals had currently been heard and that appeals could take up to a year to be heard. The officials responded that the average appeal time was approximately 28 weeks (14 weeks with SSA and 14 weeks with the Appeals Service) and that there were plans to address this backlog by the end of July. They stated that the main problem with appeals was additional evidence being presented on the day of the appeal.
Members expressed concern that the issue was with the WCA itself, referring to an article in the 16 May edition of the Guardian about GP Greg Wood, a former employee of Atos, who claimed that Atos constrains healthcare professionals from making objective decisions.
The Officials referred to the WCA Review carried out by Professor Harrington and assured the Committee that recommendations made in this report were being taken forward. They continued that SSA followed up on all individual cases raised and that there was a robust monitoring process in place.
Members of the Committee commented that there was a perception that those involved in WCA do not have the appropriate expertise, particularly in relation to mental health, and that the assessment itself was a paper exercise that did not effectively assess each individual's health status.
The officials replied that SSA has safeguards in place for those with mental health issues and that an ongoing monitoring process was in place.
Members commented that, according to the figures provided in the briefing, of 50,000 Incapacity Benefit (IB) claimants 15,000 were now in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), 15,000 were now in Support Groups and 13,000 had had their IB disallowed. The Committee asked for a breakdown of the average individual payment made previously on IB compared to the average payment made post-assessment. The officials agreed to provide this information.
Michael Copeland MLA left the meeting at 11.47am.
Members of the Committee asked which organisations provide the mental health champions. The officials responded that they were Atos staff who received special training. A healthcare professional should be a registered nurse with three years' experience across relevant medical disciplines.
Gregory Campbell MLA left the meeting at 11.50am.
The officials commented that DEL also has a partnership with Action Mental Health (AMH) for the purposes of providing an additional optional service for those clients taking part in a Work Related Activity.
Michael Copeland MLA returned to the meeting at 11.56am.
Pam Brown MLA left the meeting at 11.57am.
The Committee stated that the fact that one third of appeals against WCA decisions were upheld in favour of the appellant suggests an inherent flaw in the system. The Committee requested a breakdown of the number of assessors working who held mental health accreditations, including the overall number employed, who their accreditors are and also how many people were winning appeals on account of evidence of mental health issues. The officials agreed to investigate this and provide the Committee with the relevant information.
Members of the Committee also asked for information on how many assessors had personally opted to stop an assessment on the basis that they considered themselves to be unqualified to tackle the particular issue at hand. The officials agreed to provide this information.
Officials noted that claimants could also receive home visits. Committee Members asked how long was allocated to a home visit. The officials agreed to establish the duration of the home visits and provide the Committee with this information.
The Committee also noted that as part of the assessment process, Atos notifies the decision-maker of its recommendation regarding each health assessment. Where ESA is to be disallowed, but before a decision is made, the decision-maker contacts the client and asks for additional information to support the client's position. The Committee noted that this additional information can also result in a decision not to implement the Atos recommendation.
The Committee voiced concern about a flawed publicly funded system, evidenced by the high number of successful appeals and the resulting additional cost as a result of the appeals process.
The Committee noted that these flaws needed to be urgently addressed to ensure that claimants are dealt with effectively during the initial process and therefore minimize costs associated with the appeals process.
The officials left the meeting at 12.13pm.
8.1 The Chairperson drew the Committee's attention to a letter from the Department informing the Committee of new legislation being brought forward in GB which will alter the regulatory system of remote gambling in GB. The change in GB to the Gambling (Licensing and Advertising) Bill will amend the 2005 Gambling Act so that remote gambling is regulated on a point of consumption basis rather than point of supply.
The change in legislation will require consent of the Assembly by way of a Legislative Consent Motion. The Chairperson drew the Committee's attention to a copy of the Memorandum, laid in the Business Office on 29 May. The Committee noted that they were content to note this and did not require a report or briefing on the matter.
8.2 The Chairperson drew the Committee's attention to a second Legislative Consent Memorandum, laid in the Business Office on 22 May, relating to the Pensions Bill. The Committee agreed to request a briefing on the Legislative Consent Memorandum for the meeting on Thursday 6 June.
8.3 The Chairperson drew the Committee's attention to an item of correspondence from the Committee for Finance and Personnel to all relevant Committees regarding the Financial Provisions Bill 2013. He noted that the Bill will amend the Housing (Northern Ireland) order 1981 to provide the Housing Executive with statutory power to charge for its administration and transaction costs associated with general discretionary land transactions.
The Chair asked whether Members had any initial comments or queries regarding the Bill. The Committee stated that they were content to come back to this issue when the Bill reached Committee stage and that the Clerk of the Finance and Personnel Committee be notified to this effect.
8.4 The Chairperson drew the Committee's attention to notification of a conference in Derry / Londonderry on Wednesday 26 and Thursday 27 June on the topic of 'Communities Leading Social Change', discussing issues in relation to social enterprise.
The Committee noted this.
8.5 The Committee noted the rest of the correspondence as agreed in the correspondence memorandum.
9. Forward Work Programme
The Committee was content with the proposed Forward Work Programme.
10. Any Other Business
The Chairperson drew Members' attention to the continued use of mobile phones at Committee meetings and asked that they are switched off during all future meetings.
The Chairperson also asked Members to reflect on their attendance at Committee visits and stressed that in the future, Members would be asked to confirm their attendance at external visits at the early planning stage and that these would not be arranged if Members could not commit to attending.
The Chair asked that a note be circulated to all Members indicating his concerns on these issues.
11. Date, time and place of next meeting
The next meeting will take place at 10.00am on Thursday 6 June 2013 in Room 29, Parliament Buildings.
The Chairperson adjourned the meeting at 12.22pm.