The colourful, honey combed shapes used by the NI Executive to present its proposed Outcomes for its new Programme for Government 2016-2021 include the following outcomes: ‘we give our children and young people the best start in life’ ; ‘ we care for other and we help those in need’ and ‘we have a more equal society’ . These are the kind of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ intentions that would be difficult for anybody to disagree with.  However, away from glossy consultation documents and honeyed words,   the unquestionable reality is that unless the NI Executive systematically rights proofs existing and planned policies to ensure that they do not undermine and set at nought those high level outcomes, there is every chance that this is what will happen.

Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in the impact of benefit sanctions on children.  We know that child poverty levels in Northern Ireland are higher than in other jurisdictions within the UK and that they are predicted to rise directly as a result of welfare reform. In 2013/14 112,000 children were living in relative poverty after housing costs. This equates to 26% of all children in Northern Ireland.  One stark indicator of the impact of such poverty on children is the fact that during 2015/16 11,155children received three

 day emergency food from Trussell Food Bank.

While government will argue that the Child Poverty Strategy, overdue by 2 years and finally published in March 2016,  is its mechanism to reduce these levels of poverty, much of what is contained in that strategy is retrospective and does not address the impact of benefit sanctions on children. The one reference to welfare reform in the draft Programme for Government is limited ‘Implement a Fresh Start’ – no reference to benefit sanctions there.

A Freedom of  Information request to the Department of Communities by PPR seeking information on the impact of sanctions on children was refused – on the grounds that it would cost in excess of £8000 to ‘identify, locate, retrieve and extract’ all of the relevant information. The Department indicated that the information requested was spread across in excess of 4000 records.  The only conclusion that can be drawn from this response is that the Department is not in fact conducting any monitoring of the impact of sanctions on children.

Sanctions are used as a punitive measure against social security claimants who do not meet the conditions of the benefit they claiming. The result of sanctions is the denial of subsistence levels of unemployment benefit for people who have little or no other income. The scope, severity and incidence of the benefit sanctions regime have all increased under successive Westminster governments, with the system now being applied to a wider range of unemployed claimants, including many with long-term health conditions and disabilities, and single parents with caring responsibilities for young children.

Evidence from the UK exists of a 600% increase in sanctions on people with mental health difficulties in the past 4 years. We also know that the benefit sanctions regime in Northern Ireland is widening and deepening, a deeply troubling development which without question will impact negatively on children within families affected.  Under the Northern Ireland ( Welfare Reform) Act 2015 sanctions can now mean benefit withdrawal for up to 18 months.

While the Department of Communities does not routinely publish information on numbers of people sanctioned, PPR has conducted its own research on the scale of the issue. The Right to Work: Right to Welfare ( R2W) group, a group of unemployed activists supported by PPR, conducted a human rights based monitoring exercise outside all social security offices across Belfast during 2014/15. They found that of a total of 296 people surveyed, 58% had their social security entitlement stopped or reduced in the previous six months because of a sanction or benefit change. A Freedom of Information request revealed that between 1 November 2015 and 31 March 2016 approximately 200 sanctions a week were being issued to JSA claimants, alongside 20 ESA sanctions imposed per month. 

One thing that is undeniable is that the benefits sanctions regime is not compliant with international human rights standards, as articulated in a number of international human rights instruments, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

In June 2016 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern at the cumulative impact of social security reforms, which includes benefit sanctions, on children. It directed the UK government to conduct a comprehensive assessment of these reforms on children, with a view to revising those welfare reforms to ensure that they full respect the right of the child to have his or her best interest taken as a primary consideration.

Reinforcing that finding, also in June 2016 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern about the use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and the absence of due process and access to justice for those affected by the use of sanctions.  The Committee recommended that the government ‘review the use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and ensure that they are used proportionately’.  It also placed a requirement on the government to provide it with disaggregated data on the impact of social security reforms on vulnerable groups, including children.  An unprecedented investigation by the UN Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities into the impact of UK welfare reform, including benefit sanctions, on the rights of people with disabilities, is still ongoing.

On the positive side, a template already exists which can be applied by government to ensure that the benefit sanctions regime does not impact negatively on children.  Unemployed activists from the Right to Work: Right to Welfare Group have developed a model ‘The People’s Proposal’, which, if adopted by the NI Executive, would ensure that the social security system, including the benefits sanctions regime, is compliant with international human rights standards.

The People’s Proposal is directly informed by the UN’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee’s General Comment No 19 on Right to Social Security and outlines the specific steps the state party is required to undertake prior to any interference with an individual’s right to social security. It sets out a step by step investigation and disciplinary process which guarantees: right to information, right to representation, presumption of innocence and transparent decision making prior to the appeal stage.  In respect of benefit sanctions it requires the placing of ‘a stay’ on the implementation of any sanction decision until such time as a full investigation affording due process and proper impact assessment, including any appeals proceedings, are completed.The colourful, honey combed shapes used by the NI Executive to present  its proposed Outcomes for its new Programme for Government 2016-2021 include the following outcomes: ‘we give our children and young people the best start in life’ ; ‘ we care for other and we help those in need’ and ‘we have a more equal society’ . These are the kind of ‘motherhood and apple pie’ intentions that would be difficult for anybody to disagree with.  However, away from glossy consultation documents and honeyed words,   the unquestionable reality is that unless the NI Executive systematically rights proofs existing and planned policies to ensure that they do not undermine and set at nought those high level outcomes, there is every chance that this is what will happen.

Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in the impact of benefit sanctions on children.  We know that child poverty levels in Northern Ireland are higher than in other jurisdictions within the UK and that they are predicted to rise directly as a result of welfare reform. In 2013/14 112,000 children were living in relative poverty after housing costs. This equates to 26% of all children in Northern Ireland.  One stark indicator of the impact of such poverty on children is the fact that during 2015/16 11,155children received three day emergency food from Trussell Food Bank.

While government will argue that the Child Poverty Strategy, overdue by 2 years and finally published in March 2016,  is its mechanism to reduce these levels of poverty, much of what is contained in that strategy is retrospective and does not address the impact of benefit sanctions on children. The one reference to welfare reform in the draft Programme for Government is limited ‘Implement a Fresh Start’ – no reference to benefit sanctions there.

A Freedom of  Information request to the Department of Communities by PPR seeking information on the impact of sanctions on children was refused – on the grounds that it would cost in excess of £8000 to ‘identify, locate, retrieve and extract’ all of the relevant information. The Department indicated that the information requested was spread across in excess of 4000 records.  The only conclusion that can be drawn from this response is that the Department is not in fact conducting any monitoring of the impact of sanctions on children.

Sanctions are used as a punitive measure against social security claimants who do not meet the conditions of the benefit they claiming. The result of sanctions is the denial of subsistence levels of unemployment benefit for people who have little or no other income. The scope, severity and incidence of the benefit sanctions regime have all increased under successive Westminster governments, with the system now being applied to a wider range of unemployed claimants, including many with long-term health conditions and disabilities, and single parents with caring responsibilities for young children.

Evidence from the UK exists of a 600% increase in sanctions on people with mental health difficulties in the past 4 years. We also know that the benefit sanctions regime in Northern Ireland is widening and deepening, a deeply troubling development which without question will impact negatively on children within families affected.  Under the Northern Ireland ( Welfare Reform) Act 2015 sanctions can now mean benefit withdrawal for up to 18 months.

While the Department of Communities does not routinely publish information on numbers of people sanctioned, PPR has conducted its own research on the scale of the issue. The Right to Work: Right to Welfare ( R2W) group, a group of unemployed activists supported by PPR, conducted a human rights based monitoring exercise outside all social security offices across Belfast during 2014/15. They found that of a total of 296 people surveyed, 58% had their social security entitlement stopped or reduced in the previous six months because of a sanction or benefit change. A Freedom of Information request revealed that between 1 November 2015 and 31 March 2016 approximately 200 sanctions a week were being issued to JSA claimants, alongside 20 ESA sanctions imposed per month. 

One thing that is undeniable is that the benefits sanctions regime is not compliant with international human rights standards, as articulated in a number of international human rights instruments, including the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.

In June 2016 the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child expressed concern at the cumulative impact of social security reforms, which includes benefit sanctions, on children. It directed the UK government to conduct a comprehensive assessment of these reforms on children, with a view to revising those welfare reforms to ensure that they full respect the right of the child to have his or her best interest taken as a primary consideration.

Reinforcing that finding, also in June 2016 the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed its concern about the use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and the absence of due process and access to justice for those affected by the use of sanctions.  The Committee recommended that the government ‘review the use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and ensure that they are used proportionately’.  It also placed a requirement on the government to provide it with disaggregated data on the impact of social security reforms on vulnerable groups, including children.  An unprecedented investigation by the UN Committee on the Rights of People with Disabilities into the impact of UK welfare reform, including benefit sanctions, on the rights of people with disabilities, is still ongoing.

On the positive side, a template already exists which can be applied by government to ensure that the benefit sanctions regime does not impact negatively on children.  Unemployed activists from the Right to Work: Right to Welfare Group have developed a model ‘The People’s Proposal’, which, if adopted by the NI Executive, would ensure that the social security system, including the benefits sanctions regime, is compliant with international human rights standards.

The People’s Proposal is directly informed by the UN’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee’s General Comment No 19 on Right to Social Security and outlines the specific steps the state party is required to undertake prior to any interference with an individual’s right to social security. It sets out a step by step investigation and disciplinary process which guarantees: right to information, right to representation, presumption of innocence and transparent decision making prior to the appeal stage.  In respect of benefit sanctions it requires the placing of ‘a stay’ on the implementation of any sanction decision until such time as a full investigation affording due process and proper impact assessment, including any appeals proceedings, are completed. 

To date the People’s Proposal has secured the endorsement of a range of bodies including the Irish Council of Trade Unions, whose member unions NIPSA and PCS represent social security staff,  as well as a number of elected representatives.

The NI Executive should now use the opportunity afforded by the current consultation on its Programme for Government to adopt the People’s Proposal and to then apply it as a human rights proofing mechanism in respect of the benefit sanctions regime to ensure that children are actually given the best start in life and that as a society we do care for those in need and do have a more equal society. Only in this way will it achieve its aspiration of ‘making a difference to the things that matter most to people.’