Last week, the Right to Work: Right to Welfare (R2W) group met with the new Mayor of Belfast, Nichola Mallon, to discuss the ongoing failure by the Executive to progress key human rights standards, which is impacting people who sign on at dole offices across the city every day.

The group approached the Mayor after her acceptance speech in April, where she stated her intention to bring her office “out of City Hall and into people’s lives” in order to “connect with those who at times feel invisible in our city”.

In January 2014, the R2W group successfully campaigned to change Belfast City Council policy and have since been campaigning tirelessly for the implementation of their REAL JOBS NOW policy to create jobs and fully paid apprenticeships for the long term unemployed through Belfast City Council procurement expenditure.  A full report as to how the council plan to implement the policy is due to be made available in August.

Recent figures in the Belfast City Council area show that over 12,500 people are unemployed with over one third of these having been out of work for over one year.

The group explained to the Mayor that, while campaigning for positive change in governance at City Hall, they also uncovered shocking evidence of financial sanctions on the most vulnerable people in Belfast.

Their research, carried out over a year at all Belfast dole offices, and presented to the Lord Mayor’s predecessor, Máirtín O’Muilleoir, the Department for Social Development, the Department Employment and Learning and the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment shine’s a light on the impact of both the unemployment crisis and welfare reform, on families across the city;

  • 69% of people who are able to work haven’t had a job in over one year, despite massive untapped potential in procurement contracts to create jobs for those who need it most – the long term unemployed.
  • A decrease (5% in March 2013 to 3.8% in March 2014) of people who get a job after taking part in a government back to work scheme such as Steps to Work. Despite this, between September 2008 and June 2014 approximately £34.5 million has been paid to Lead Contractors from the private sector involved with the delivery of the Steps to Work programme.
  • An increase (39% in March 2013 to 50% in March 2014) in the number of people receiving sanctions, which in turn leads to their benefits being stopped. Over three quarters of respondents did not have enough information about how to appeal a sanction decision, meaning that they were not equipped to challenge the decisions taken against them at dole offices.

The group explained to the Mayor that the level and arbitrary nature of the sanctions and appeals process is forcing many families into a downward spiral of destitution, and driving many to use food banks and loan sharks, starting a further cycle of harm. They also discussed how in some cases such measures have fomented and encouraged a situation where racism can thrive, as a minority of people wrongly blame Belfast’s newest residents for the social and economic problems they face.

R2W Group member Bertie Atkinson, who is over 60 and in his 5th week of appealing a decision to stop his benefits payments, met with the Mayor and said:

"We are grateful that the Lord Mayor came out and gave us her full support to highlight the issues that concern unemployed people, particularly with regards to their benefits being cut and the lack of opportunities to get real jobs. At the start of the year the REAL JOBS NOW motion passed at council with cross party political support. But it has been a long slog to see it implemented. We just hope that when the report comes back in August that it does address some of these issues and creates real jobs.

“We talked with the Lord Mayor today about bringing these things out into the open and the need for an event at City Hall to shine a light on the problems unemployed people face. You hear a lot about benefit fraud but very little about how and why people are having their benefits taken off them. Less than 2% of people we talked to were accused of fraud.

We look forward to launching our new research in City Hall in the not too distant future with the support of the Mayor.”