Review of Troubles victims' service
A Troubles victims' service designed to pay for counselling and other special needs is to be independently reviewed following serious criticism from some sufferers in Northern Ireland.
A woman had to get three quotes for her own wheelchair and many bereaved by the conflict decided not to apply for financial help after those who did were left stressed and frustrated, the region's largest victims group has claimed.
Calls were not returned, claims to cover the cost of befriending or counselling were delayed and onerous paperwork requirements left some who lost loved ones feeling it was not worth using the Victims and Survivors' Service (VSS), a report from the Wave Trauma Centre has said.
Wave's chief executive Sandra Peake said: "The announcement of an independent assessment...is timely, it is necessary and it is extremely positive that it is being undertaken."
An umbrella group for victims outlined grievances at Stormont - including the case of a woman who had to get three quotes for her own wheelchair to satisfy the Service's accountability requirements.
Victims' commissioner Kathryn Stone told the OFMDFM committee of MLAs the review would look at individual assessments of applications for money and how information was used.
"It will also consider bigger picture things like the governance of the organisation, the role of the board of the organisation and highlight whether improvements need to be made into the future," she said.
The Service was established by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister (OFMDFM) in April last year to channel £20 million Executive funding to those who need it most. It provides money for therapies and counselling for those injured during the 30-year conflict.
Ms Stone was asked by First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to commission the independent assessment.
The intention is to report back by February. The Commissioner acknowledged that improvements had been made.
Wave has helped relatives in the hunt for those abducted and killed by the IRA who are known as the Disappeared. It is a cross-community organisation which provides practical help to those who have been injured, bereaved or traumatised by the Troubles. Among its senior members are Alan McBride, whose wife died in the 1993 IRA Shankill Road fish shop bomb.
Ms Peake said issues surrounded the policy of assessing all applicants for aid, how decisions were taken and how the system was governed.
"The difficulty for many individuals is that they have not felt able to talk about the difficulties of the process when they may be seen to influence the outcome that they may achieve," she said.
"There needs to be clear transparency on how those decisions are made ."
The victims commissioner has claimed the service made people feel like beggars and alleged the assessment process was not fit for purpose.
Many of Wave's clients have raised queries and complaints about the service. These included alleged long delays before assessments and in processing claims, and phone calls repeatedly not being returned despite repeated promises from staff to do so.
Other victims' concerns included:
:: The need to supply three months worth of bank statements, despite meeting criteria for receiving a means-tested benefit.
:: Having to obtain three written quotes for services, which often caused embarrassment in shops.
:: Dissatisfaction at having to undergo assessment, when claimants have already been with a predecessor of the support service for many years.