Stormont on Friday: Normal Lives and Special Needs and Getting to Work

A select review of Northern Ireland’s political discourse from the past seven days

We spend all week with an eye on Stormont, writing reports and helping clients get their ideas off the ground, while getting to know the many to-ings and fro-ings within the House on the Hill; certain issues get a good showing in the media, others not at all, while the coverage of some focuses only on limited aspects of the debate. Here we provide summary bulletins on some of the latest party arguments and positions.


Special needs and normal lives? Gordon Dunne brought a DUP motion calling for greater support for people with learning disabilities, offering choice, independence and a full life. He said challenges were not limited to employment and, while many families provide support for a loved one, in other cases a support network does not exist and more in general should be done to help people who can play a valuable role in society. The SDLP supported the motion, but added an amendment explicitly calling for “necessary” finance to be made available so that politicians and related agencies can work with other sectors to buttress “social inclusion, citizenship, empowerment, working together and individual support.”

Sinn Fein agreed with the motion and the sentiment that assistance cannot be limited to just providing day opportunities – saying the ultimate goal is full social inclusion, and calling for a two-pronged approach empowering those with learning disabilities on the one hand, and helping communities become more active in integration and inclusion on the other.

The UUP said they were also in agreement, but noted there is no one-sized solution, and that the individuals involved were just that, so flexible provision needs to be put in place. Kieran McCarthy of Alliance said he has a daughter with special needs, so is personally aware of the importance of support as discussed, saying such issues “have always been the Cinderella of the health service”, and said a drive towards meaningful support towards fulfilling lives had his full support.

Health Minister Edwin Poots said providing choice to those with learning disabilities was paramount, and that they should have “access to eduction, employment, personal relationships, leisure, community and sports opportunities with individual support available where required.” He said there would be consultation on a regional model for day opportunities, and that he and other relevant Departments would work with those outside Stormont to begin moving measures forward. Motion passed as amended.


Reactivating the NI economy? Dr Farry the Employment Minister made a statement also on behalf of DETI, announcing a new strategy to tackle economic inactivity and saying the measures would be aimed primarily at two groups: the long-term sick and/or disabled, and those with family commitments – saying high inactivity in these areas was an age-old structural problem with the NI economy.

The UUP noted that DEL already has a slew of employment strategies already in place, with 430 recommendations or actions current, and asked how any new measures would help, with Dr Farry saying existing measured tend to focus on unemployment rather than economic inactivity. The DUP noted the intention for DEL to work alongside health professionals, asking if this amounted to a review of the ongoing condition management programme. The Minister said the new scheme will be more general, and that more cooperation with health officials is desired, perhaps even leading to an integrated service.

Sinn Fein asked what safeguards were in place to prevent problems similar to those leaving vulnerable people in the lurch following the “discredited” work capability assessments. Dr Farry said the announcement was unrelated to welfare reform, and was about “enabling people” not forcing them into work, but acknowledged it exists within the same sphere as recent benefits changes. The SDLP asked if provision would be targeted at areas of high inactivity, and was told the changes were very likely to move forward on a local basis, and such measures were possible. Alliance noted the Minister’s recent work with learning disability groups, and asked if there would be liaison with that sector and others. Dr Farry said the established overseeing task force would work with various stakeholders to map out current services, before setting up local competitive pilot projects, adding that there would be a “call for proposals”.


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