With the number of people appealing benefits decisions expected to increase dramatically over the next three years, concerns have been expressed at funding cuts to a major welfare support organisation.
Since 2013 Belfast Citywide Tribunal Service has helped citizens secure benefit entitlement totalling £9.6million; however, funding has run out for the project from Belfast City Council.
Gerry Tubritt, who chairs the Belfast Advice Group which manages the scheme, said: “Many of those accessing the service are vulnerable, with a range of health problems, as well as physical, mental and learning disabilities.
“The benefits system can be difficult for those people to navigate at the best of times, but particularly when it involves turning up in person to a formal hearing before a panel which includes people with a legal or medical background.”
North Belfast MLA Nichola Mallon said the funding cut undermines the Executive’s welfare mitigation package.
In response to a question from SDLP’s Ms Mallon, the communities minister revealed appeals were expected to increase from nearly 12,000 in 2016/17 up to 41,000 in 2018/19.
Ms Mallon said: “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 this vital service.”
The tribunal service was funded by Belfast City Council using provision granted by the Department for Communities for representation services.
A department spokesperson said the communities minister has announced additonal funding of £2.5 million as part of the Fresh Start Agreement “in recognition of the fact that demand for advice services, including tribunal representation, will increase due to the implementation of welfare reforms”.
The funding will go to the Welfare Reform Advice Services Consortium (Citizens Advice, AdviceNI and the Law Centre NI).