First ‘social recovery’ budget will not restore eroded public services, but Gov’t has opportunity for fresh start
14 October 2014
Despite its vaunted ‘social justice’ element, Budget 2015 fails to fully address the emaciation of public services stretched beyond measure by serial austerity drives. This was the first reaction of legal rights group FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres), which says a different approach to how the Government makes budget decisions could point the way to a ‘social recovery’.
While the organisation welcomed the positive measures in today’s Budget - such as increases in financial supports to older people and children, adjustment of the USC rate and ceiling, and capital investment of €2.2 billion for social housing provision over the next three years - FLAC said the budget did not adequately address access to the basic support systems that people need to live a life of basic dignity.
“We know from our work on the ground that people are struggling to get help with dealing with their debts, with accessing legal supports for family and employment issues, with accessing affordable housing or healthcare, with challenging unfair social welfare decisions, and a host of other worries,” said FLAC Director General Noeline Blackwell.
“So we are frustrated by yet another budget that does not tackle these problems in an enduring way. Minister Howlin acknowledged earlier this morning the need for a social recovery, which is welcome. But there can be no ‘social recovery’ as long as the state does not prioritise the regeneration of public services so badly eroded during the recession.
“Social recovery needs the kind of investment which will provide a long-term dividend for all people that goes beyond giving some groups a few more euro while leaving others mired in struggle. This budget has promised investment in mental health services, social housing, disability supports and education – this is the kind of investment needed and is very welcome, but it is needed across the board. This budget is good for higher earners, those on lower incomes fare less well. And in particular, people seeking access to justice will be disappointed, despite a new court of appeal.”
“We believe the State needs to shoulder its responsibility to ensure people in Ireland live in at least basic dignity,” Ms Blackwell continued. “That should be the number one aim of a budget that is focused on ‘social recovery’.”
FLAC zeroed in on what it called a “deeply flawed budgetary process” as being largely responsible for the state’s failure to address its duties. “What we need is an open and transparent process where we can see how decisions are reached and can trust that the impact of each measure has been clearly and adequately considered,” said FLAC Advocacy & Policy Officer Yvonne O’Sullivan.
“We need a budgetary process that is based on fundamental human rights, asking simple questions like whether a measure makes a basic right more affordable for people, more accessible to all, adequate to ensure a basic minimum level of that right – on issues like housing, healthcare, education, social protection, and access to justice,” she said.
“Instead, what we have is a secretive, exclusive process that uses kite-flying and media leaks to drive decision-making. This is far below what the people of Ireland deserve. We hope that this budget will be the last to operate behind closed doors and herald a new era of transparent, fair and accountable decision-making.”
- FLAC hosts a post-budget forum on Thursday 16 October where civil society organisations will respond to Budget 2015 in terms of how it impacts on the people they work with using a human rights framework.
- FLAC (Free Legal Advice Centres) is a human rights organisation which exists to promote equal access to justice for all. As an NGO, FLAC relies on a combination of statutory funding, contributions from the legal professions and donations from individuals and grant-making foundations to support its work.
- We offer free, confidential basic legal information on our lo-call telephone line at 1890 350 250, and free legal advice through a nationwide network of volunteer evening advice centres (see http://www.flac.ie/help for a full listing). FLAC also campaigns for legal reforms on a range of issues including personal debt, fairness in social welfare law, public interest law and civil legal aid.
- The post-budget event ‘Fairer Budget, Fairer Society: Analysis of Budget 2015 from Irish civil society’ will take place EU Parliament Offices, 43 Molesworth Street, Dublin 2 from 10am to 12 noon on Thursday 16 October 2014. A panel of speakers will address various aspects of human rights budgeting and budget analysis, chaired by FLAC’s Noeline Blackwell - Prof. John Reynolds, Lecturer of Law at NUI Maynooth, June Tinsley, National Policy Officer at Barnardos, Des Hogan, Legal Unit, Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, and Michael Taft, Economist and Research Officer with Unite, the Union. FLAC will present the results of a post-budget survey of more than 40 civil society organisations, and the event will conclude with a discussion forum with reactions to Budget 2015, considering the human rights impact on the people they work with and highlighting what recommendations they believe could lead to a fairer budget. Full details at http://bit.ly/fairbudget2015
- FLAC’s pre-budget submission is at http://bit.ly/PBS2015 - in summary, FLAC called for the reform of the current budgetary processes to ensure a fairer, transparent budget based on a human rights law framework. We have called for the following recommendations:
- Greater Consultation-the Government should seek information and advice on the budgetary impact of its policies and austerity measures on groups susceptible to poverty from the National Human Rights Structures including the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission designate and those dealing with the protection of human rights of vulnerable groups.
- Introduce impact assessments- all proposed budgetary measures should be tested against their impact on human rights and equality. These assessments should be carried out by all government departments, made publicly available and disseminated and should then be discussed by the Oireachtas.
- Transparency-open the restrictive nature of the Economic Management Council to include other elected representatives and provide information to the public on how budgetary decisions are made.
- To implement and recognise a “social protection floor”, protecting every person’s right to a life of dignity and freedom from hardship. The current rates of social welfare have been found to not meet a minimum essential standard of living, research conducted by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice.
- Look specifically at those facing severe financial hardship, where a person’s social welfare payment has been reduced, below the State’s recognised basic minimum income, supplementary welfare allowance (€186), without their consent by 15% by the Department of Social Protection. The Department must adhere to its own guidelines on supplementary welfare allowance.
- To address the access to justice issue in recovering overpayments due to the lack of procedures followed by the Department of Social Protection. Overpayments can be due to an error of the departments or claimants; however there is no right to appeal how the overpayment should be repaid, therefore a person cannot challenge the decision by the department to reduce their payment to a level that does not provide an adequate standard of living.
- To resource adequately the training of Deciding Officers, to ensure a greater consistency in decision making at first instance. This would lead to a reduction in the number of appeals lodged to the Social Welfare Appeals Office and simultaneously lead to a reduction in the processing times of oral hearings and summary decisions.