Northern Ireland

Vulnerable young people most at risk from budget cuts, organisations and charities warn in letter to NI secretary

Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

VULNERABLE children and young people will be "disproportionately" impacted by cuts under the recent budget, it has been warned in a joint letter by organisations to the Northern Ireland Secretary.

The letter, signed by over 100 groups and charities working with young people in the north, was sent to Chris Heaton Harris by the Children’s Law Centre.

It warns that budget decisions made in the absence of a Stormont Executive "will feed the system-wide regression of children's rights in Northern Ireland".

"This neglect will lead ultimately to an even more overwhelmed, dysfunctional system of public service provision and increased financial cost incurred in the immediate and longer term with far-reaching consequences," the letter states.

Among organisations to jointly sign the letter are Barnardo's NI, Action Mental Health, Belfast Interface Project and the National Autistic Society NI.

The NI Secretary said of the budget that "difficult decisions remain in order to live within the funding available", and said the British government was offering "flexibility" on the repayment of a £297million overspend by Stormont, by spreading it over two years rather than deducting it in one go from the north's block grant.

Fergal McFerran, policy and public affairs manager at the Children’s Law Centre, said: “The budget and the cuts to services flowing from it will cause active harm to a generation of children and young people. We have had weeks of announcements signalling cuts to children’s support and early intervention services that will cause significant long-term harm to many.

“The way in which these decisions are being made is an affront to children’s rights and equality. Despite having a statutory duty to assess the impact and to protect children, particularly children who are disadvantaged or have additional needs, these services are the first to go."

Mr McFerran said young people, families and carers were "already at breaking point".

"There is a crisis in mental health for our young people, a complete failure around services for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and unacceptable numbers of children living in poverty. Yet, budget decisions are targeting these groups of children directly," he added.

“Rather than cutting children’s services, we must look at how we better protect our children and young people. We should be strengthening laws to ensure they have full access to services that support their survival and development. We should be making decisions that are in their best interests, rather than knowingly subjecting them to future harm.”

Following last week's budget, Mr Heaton-Harris said the north's financial situation "exists despite the UK government providing additional funding totalling £7 billion to NI since 2014, on top of extra funding provided through the Barnett formula".

He added: "I remain committed to protecting the interests of people in Northern Ireland, and will continue to do everything I can to help the Northern Ireland Parties to work together to make that happen."