Victims and Survivors commissioner admits: victims are put through fresh trauma by system designed to help them
Scores of victims of the Troubles are being 're-traumatised' by the new system to assess their needs, MLAs have been warned.
The Victims and Survivors Commission told First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness the procedure needs a "root and branch" review.
Commissioner Kathryn Stone yesterday told the Assembly committee which monitors Mr Robinson and Mr McGuinness's department (OFMDFM) that the current system is "not fit for purpose".
She said she had written outlining her concerns to the service – which comes under OFMDFM – and junior ministers Gerry Kelly and Jennifer McCann five weeks ago – but beyond an acknowledgement has had no reply.
The victims and survivors service was established by the DUP leader and senior Sinn Fein leader last year and is designed to assess individuals' needs – including financial help, pain relief, and access to medical and psychiatric help. But victims and survivors who have come forward have often found they are being put through their horrifying experiences again and again.
Ms Stone said it was a matter of "profound regret" that the commission had had to take the step of demanding a complete review, within a relatively short period of the service getting fully underway.
Over recent months, more than 1,600 people have been assessed and 46 groups dealing with victims have been processed in applying for funding.
"In 2013 this should simply not be happening to people," she said.
"These are people who have suffered terribly and we should be doing all we can to remove obstacles and barriers for them.
"There are also many hidden victims, people who have previously not come forward. These are very vulnerable people who need a compassionate and kind service." Ms Stone and the commission's head of policy, Adrian McNamee, appeared before the committee less than a week after she was criticised by MLAs Jim Allister and Mike Nesbitt for declining to label the IRA and UVF as 'terrorists'. Ulster Unionist leader Mr Nesbitt is chairman of the committee but was not present for the meeting yesterday. It is believed he is unwell.
Ms Stone said: "Much of this seems to be at the very basic level of customer care, such as not returning calls or replying to emails... groups feel they are being kept in the dark."
The commissioner said the concerns are "many and varied."
There is also confusion and disappointment about a "lack of consistency" between different assessors working for the service "and the way it is carried out."
Acting chair Chris Lyttle of Alliance said the concerns were "significant and serious".
Former Executive minister Alex Attwood questioned the time that has passed since Ms Stone sent the letter – which was only responded to by what she called a "holding letter" promising a fuller explanation later.
Ms Stone also said there had been no explanation for the delay.
Sinn Fein's Alex Maskey said Mrs Stone's criticism was "very stark".
There are now to be monthly meetings between the commission, officials of the service and OFMDFM.
There was no immediate response to the criticism from the OFMDFM last night.
The new victims and survivors service set up by Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness became operational in April last year.
Its aim is to provide support to victims and survivors based on identified and agreed need, and its "key principles" include:
- Better co-ordination of funding;
- More efficient use of resources;
- To collate information on individual needs;
- Better evaluation of service provided.