The Director of Health and Community presented the above report, details of which had been previously circulated to Members. The purpose of the report was to advise Members following the decision of the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee of the consultation period, which closes on 25 February 2021, of the open consultation process for the draft 2021/2022 budget for the Department for Communities (DfC).
She referred to the Special Meeting of Council held on 8 February 2021, where Council agreed a second phase of the motion in terms of writing to the Minister of Finance and the Minister for Communities to respond to the DfC consultation in relation to its budget allocation, particularly regarding Advice Services. She stated that the clarification provided noted that resolution would supersede that of the Governance and Strategic Planning Committee which had yet to be ratified. She advised that after discussion with the Lead Finance Officer, correspondence had been issued in terms of the wording of the motion. She advised that Members comments were now sought for inclusion of a detailed response. She further advised that a draft and equality impact assessment was open for consideration in respect of DfC funding with 92% being allocated towards set expenditure and the other 8% considered as variable. She then invited additional comments from Members.
Councillor Duffy noted that the Minister for Communities had expressed disappointment in terms of the budget allocation and had specifically asked that people respond to the consultation. She also wished to note that pressures had arisen due to the fact that two, three-year budgets had been proposed. However, at this late stage, the British Government instigated a one-year budget which had meant that money could not be carried over. She stated that in terms of New Decade New Approach, funding commitments had not been realised. She felt that all those issues must be taken into consideration. She noted that it was important to understand that the budget is in draft form, therefore, it was important to make our feelings and views heard. She stated that the Minister had advised that in terms of importance of Advice Services, she wished for these to continue.
She advised that the Minister had also stated her commitment to the continuation of the mitigations, but also wished to address the loopholes identified in terms of the bedroom tax and other benefit gaps. She is considering implementing additional measures to support those who have been struggling on a long-term basis with cuts and asked that these issues also be included within the draft consultation. She stated that her Party supported the scrapping of the six-month rule and that Minister Hargey had stated that she was pursuing the matter. She urged Members to respond to the consultation as everyone was aware of the importance of the budget and the Department for Communities services towards vulnerable people throughout the city and district.
Councillor Harkin described the draft budget as disastrous and completely unacceptable. He stated that it was also unacceptable to hear from Sinn Fein that Members had to do the work set up by their Minister. He felt that it was important to note that the Political Parties who said they were leading the fight against welfare reform and then delivered it. He stated that there was never funding agreed from the New Decade New Approach discussions, which he described as a failure. He stated that Members now had to deal with the legacy of this failure. He referred to the unspent money by the Executive and expressed concern that a draft budget consultation had now been issued that once again dealt with the legacy of welfare reform brought in by Parties unnecessarily. He stated that Council should state in the strongest possible language that the budget was unacceptable and that the Executive must find the money to ensure that these proposed cuts did not come to fruition. He referred to a recent article that documented the impact of the potential funding cut in the Belfast Telegraph from Advice NI and recommended that people read it.
Councillor Farrell noted Councillor Duffy’s comments that the Minister for Communities was disappointed with the draft budget and stated that communities across the North would be equally disappointed. However, it was important to remember that it was in draft form and had yet to be finalised. He stated that the matter had been discussed at length at previous meetings and that there was £60m of New Decade New Approach commitments regarding welfare protections that were not there at all. He noted the £1.5m of funding cuts for the independent advice services which would severely impact this Council and local service provision and people’s ability to obtain free, impartial and professional advice. He stated that society was currently in a pandemic and should be enhancing this service instead of stripping it away. He stated that although the budget was in draft form, the Minister needed to take ownership and whatever the final outcome, it was the decision of the Minister and therefore, she would be held accountable for the impact on local communities.
Alderman Devenney stated that although everyone expressed disappointment at the draft budget, it was currently in draft form. He stated that all Parties needed to respond to the consultation and raise their concerns. He advised that the DUP would be raising their concerns to their MLAs.
Recommended that Council respond to the Department for Communities consultation on the equality impact assessment of the draft budget.