Minister’s pledge on tsar for pensioners
A new commissioner for older people in Northern Ireland will not be a toothless tiger, the Assembly has been told.
Whoever takes up the position will have an extensive range of powers to investigate complaints and take legal action, junior minister Robin Newton pledged. He hailed the anticipated establishment of the full-time role as MLAs passed the latest stage of the required legislation.
Pensioners from across Northern Ireland were in the public gallery as the appointment of a commissioner to represent their rights moved a step closer. Mr Newton pointed out that only Wales had created a similar post.
”Establishing a commissioner here is a ground-breaking development,” he said yesterday.
“And this is an example of the assembly working together along with the age sector and addressing issues that are important to those who make up the population of Northern Ireland.”
It has been three years since the idea of establishing a commission was first looked at by the devolved administration.
Dame Joan Harbison was appointed as an interim Older Peoples Advocate but the legislative journey to formalise the role of permanent commissioner has taken longer than expected.
The DUP junior minister insisted the appointee would provide an effective service.
“I can reassure members that the commissioner will have a wide range of powers including powers with specific teeth,” he said.\[Stephen Holland\]”Such as the power to conduct a formal investigation into a complaint with High Court powers to call for persons, papers and evidence as well as having powers of entry and inspection.
“If someone were to attempt to obstruct the commissioner, those powers would be backed up with the offence of contempt.
“The commissioner will also have the power to take legal cases on behalf of older people and to assist an older person with their own legal case.
“The commissioner will also have a wide range of promotional, advisory, education and general investigatory functions, duties and powers to be deployed in the interest of older people both generally and individually.
“And these powers will help him or her to fulfil the aims of protecting the interests of older people here, and the commissioner will be able to influence the actions of many organisations and individuals that affect older people's lives in many different ways.”
Mr Newton said the commissioner would have direct access to the First and Deputy First Ministers and would be able to pass recommendations onto regulatory bodies such as the Northern Ireland Ombudsman and the Criminal Justice Inspectorate.
Francis Hughes, of lobby group Age Sector Platform, welcomed the consideration stage of the bill reaching the Assembly floor.
“The consideration stage of the Older People's Commissioner's Bill is a crucial phase in our journey to secure this landmark piece of legislation,” he said.
“We have been campaigning hard since 2007 for a powerful commissioner that will be able to act with urgency and prioritise older people's issues.
“The crowds of older people coming to Stormont today highlight how important the campaign is to all of us.
“Although there are other commissions in Northern Ireland, evidence provided during the committee scrutiny of the bill revealed several gaps in existing provision.
“An Older People's Commissioner with strong enough powers would act as a dedicated focal point protecting the rights of older people and providing a user-friendly approach dedicated to their needs.”
The campaign has been backed by Ruth Marks, the Older People's Commissioner for Wales.
“I welcome the move towards creating a Commissioner role in Northern Ireland and encourage countries to establish roles with the sole purpose of focusing on older people and the issues that are most important to them,” she said.
“Older people across Wales tell me that they value the fact that there is an independent Commissioner, with legal powers, to scrutinise and challenge and make sure that their voices are heard.”