Belfast City Council urged to keep funding Citywide Tribunal Service benefits advice body
A plea has been made to Belfast City Council to continue funding an advice service that is believed to have helped thousands of people keep their benefits.
The Belfast Citywide Tribunal Service (BCTS) is set to close its doors on December 31, when its funding comes to an end.
Eight members of staff will lose their jobs when the organisation is forced to shut.
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.
SDLP MLA Nichola Mallon called on the Communities Minister Paul Givan and Belfast City Council to urgently reinstate funding for the service.
Ms Mallon said: "From 31st December, funding to provide specialist Appeal Tribunal support and advice across Belfast is to be cut completely. Over the course of the last three years, this vital service has protected over £9m for vulnerable people across this city that would otherwise have been withdrawn and have left many unable to provide for their families through no fault of their own.
"As a result of the cruellest aspects of welfare reform, which the SDLP stood steadfastly against at the Assembly and Westminster, the Communities Minister has revealed to me that appeals are expected to increase from 12,000 in 2017 to 41,000 in 2019. Despite that huge increase in appeals, the Communities Minister and Belfast City Council have still decided to completely cut funding and close the doors of the vital Belfast Tribunal Service.
"The net result is that many vulnerable people suffering physical and mental ill health will be left to navigate a daunting and complex appeals process without specialist support. That is unacceptable.
"All of this is at a time when taxpayer's money is being used to fund the £490m RHI black hole and the £13.1m Social Investment Fund overspend. Public money is being used to plaster over the incompetence of this Executive and the most vulnerable are the ones bearing the brunt of it.
"Before Christmas I urgently wrote to the Communities Minister asking him to outline what support he will make available to keep this vital specialist support service going. I, along with the thousands who need this service, await his reply."
The funding of the service was discussed at the meeting of Belfast City Council's People and Communities committee earlier this month. Councillors agreed then that a letter would be sent to the Department for Communities seeking a meeting with the minister to be attended by a cross-party delegation from the committee.
The matter is likely to be discussed at the next full meeting of the council on January 7.
People Before Profit councillor Matt Collins proposed a motion calling for the council to recognise "the important role the service plays in helping people across this city and understand that faced with the coming changes surrounding welfare reform, this service is needed now more than ever".
Cllr Collins' motion also urges the local authority to continue funding the service until other sources of money can be secured.
This motion is expected to be referred to the city council's strategic policy and resources committee.