Belfast City Council to provide £54,000 in urgent funding for Citywide Tribunal Service
Belfast City Council has agreed to provide urgent funding of £54,000 for an advice service that is believed to have helped thousands of people keep their benefits.
The Citywide Tribunal Service’s existing funding expired on 31 December.
However, on Friday morning the council’s Strategic Policy and Resources Committee unanimously agreed to make £54,000 available to the organisation to fund it until 31 March 2017.
Councillor John Hussey, Chair of the Committee, said: "There was a unanimous desire by all members to extend the current funding arrangement, in light of the invaluable work which the service carries out across the city."
The service has been funded by Belfast City Council, with support from the former Department of Social Development (now the Department for Communities), since June 2013. It is based at the Ligoniel Improvement Association building in the north of the city.
The BCTS was established in anticipation of welfare reform to address the impact cuts would have on people in receipt of benefits, including disability living allowance and employment support allowance.
It also hoped to help those affected by the introduction of personal independence payments, which will replace disability living allowance by 2020.
The service provides support and assistance to clients appealing decisions by the Social Security Agency and can be accessed by anyone living in the city through any of the 21 council-funded advice programmes.
Gerry Tubritt, who chairs the Belfast Advice Group, said the body had provided representation at 3,203 appeals, helping people secure benefit entitlement totalling £9.6m.
"The funding that Belfast City Council has provided for this service has really benefited Belfast citizens, and we are very grateful that the council took the initiative to help meet this need," Mr Tubritt added.
"Many of those accessing the service are vulnerable, with a range of health problems, as well as physical, mental and learning disabilities.
"The service we provide helps make this (appeals) a much less stressful experience, and ensures that where possible the evidence to demonstrate that people remain entitled to benefit is gathered and presented to those making decisions."
Mr Tubritt also warned that the number of appeal hearings was set to dramatically increase between now and 2020. The Appeals Service, which administers the process, estimated there would be more than 32,000 such cases in 2017/18, and around 41,000 the following year as the process of reassessing the 125,000 disability living allowance claimants across Northern Ireland gets into full swing. In parts of Belfast one in five people receives this benefit.