“This isn’t about Westminster. Stormont has the power to act NOW!”

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Right To Work; Right To Welfare, launched ‘The People’s Proposal’ (click to read) for due process and protection against benefits sanctions which have driven many into homelessness and food poverty.

The launch, in north Belfast’s Duncairn Centre, featured unemployed speakers alongside United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights representative; Christian Courtis and leading human rights barrister, Laura Mc Mahon, BL.

The testimonies of some group members were read by actors and high profile campaign supporters to protect their identities for fear of being victimised as a result of their human rights campaigning work. 

Dawn Purvis spoke on behalf of 'M' - A woman who was declared fit for work and had her social security reduced despite her illness following a 'Work Capability Assessment'. Dr Colin Harvey, QUB, spoke on behalf of 'X' a man on Job Seekeers Allowance who has lost all of his income and his home after a sanction

Bertie Atkinson, a R2W member, spoke at the event about his personal experience of social security sanctions.

Despite welfare reform not yet being implemented, between October 2014 - 2015 21,386 financial sanctions were carried out against people on unemployment and sickness benefits alone. Jobseekers are being sanctioned for being 15 minutes late or early for appointments or attending family funerals. Sick people are being told they have to find a job because decision makers don’t look at their medical evidence. It is driving people on to the breadline and has to stop. Today we have put forward simple proposals to protect people’s rights. All we want are the same rights to due process people get under the law or in the workplace”

  

The R2W group have spent three years researching the impacts of sanctions by surveying outside all of Belfast’s Social Security offices and have developed 'The People's Proposal' to be within the powers of the Stormont Executive to deliver immediately.

The proposals which received widespread support at the launch form advice workers, youth workers, food poverty campaigners, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and legal experts call for:

1.  people’s right to due process in the social security system to reflect existing standards in the workplace and legal fields.

2.    ‘impact assessments’ to ensure no-one would be left without an adequate income to provide for their families as a result of sanctions.

R2W’s research, carried out at Belfast’s Social Security offices and detailed in ‘The People’s Proposal’ show the stark rising trend of sanctions in recent years:

•       In 2013 39% of people surveyed had their benefit stopped because of a sanction. In 2014 this rose to 50% and in 2015 it had reached 59%.

•       Many said they were denied basic rights of appeal; in 2013 64% of people sanctioned said they did not have appropriate information to appeal. This rose to 77% in 2014 and was at 83% in 2015.

Personal testimonies were given by people with disabilities describing the devastating impact of the Department for Social Development’s notorious ‘Work Capability Assessments’ currently carried out by private company ATOS. ATOS continue to hold the contract to carry out Work Capability Assessments in Northern Ireland until 2018 at a cost of £82.2 million. Their contract ended early in England and Wales following public outcry and continuous reports of the disastrous impact the company’s implementation of WCA  on people with disabilities, including suicides.

Unemployed people explained the role of private company Ingeus in implementing the sanctions regime. Attendees at the launch heard how the company is one of three private contractors being paid to deliver the Department for Employment and Learning’s back to work scheme - Steps to Success. In February DEL reported that 23% of those who took part in Steps to Success over the first four months of its operation were in employment, however no information was provided on whether the job was retained. Information disclosed under Freedom of Information 

legislation in February 2015 revealed that in the first four months of Steps to Success operation, contractors were paid over £3.6 million.

Testimony was heard from 'Ben;' a young person who had been sanctioned by Ingeus for attending a funeral after being mandated to take part in Steps to Success and taken off a 'Princes Trust' scheme with guaranteed employment.

'The People’s Proposal' outlines simple steps to be included in the stages BEFORE and AFTER sanctions are carried out to ensure people in receipt of social security have their internationally recognised rights to due process and a minimum essential level of benefits protected.

Seán Brady, PPR development worker Seán Brady said:

The welfare system is broken. Big companies are being paid millions in public money to declare sick people fit and punish people on back work schemes, which aren’t working. Their actions lead to millions more being taken out of communities. Our local Political Parties and the Ministers in DEL and DSD can’t wash their hands and blame Westminster. This isn’t about Westminster. Stormont has the power to act now to adopt ‘The People's Proposal’ locally to protect the most vulnerable.”