17 October marks UN International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. This post sets out the background to the decision in the high court last month to grant CAJ leave to judicially review the Northern Ireland Executive over its alleged failure to adopt an anti poverty strategy based on objective need.
Following the 2006 St Andrews Agreement a legal duty was introduced on the NI Executive under s28E of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (as inserted by s16 of the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006). This duty reads as follows:
The Executive Committee shall adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deprivation based on objective need.
The Executive Committee –a) must keep under review the strategy; and b) may from time to time adopt a new strategy or revise the strategy.
There is therefore a statutory duty on the NI Executive to adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to tackle poverty, social exclusion and patterns of deviation and to base that strategy on objective need. CAJs contention is that the devolved administration has not done this as there is no identifiable strategy to this end.
Before the restoration of the devolved institutions in 2006 the direct-rule administration did adopt a strategy entitled Lifetime Opportunities: government’s anti-poverty and social inclusion strategy for Northern Ireland. In November 2008 the devolved executive agreed to adopt the ‘broad architecture and principles’ of Lifetime Opportunities but did not adopt the strategy per se, nor has there been any identifiable successor strategy. In response to CAJ officials have previously stated that they felt the duty is being met through a combination of this ‘endorsement’ of Lifetime Opportunities, other commitments in the Programme for Government and actions across department monitored through the Delivering Social Change framework (although they have confirmed the latter is not the anti-poverty strategy). In responding to CAJ questions over whether the Executive had its own strategy and consequently when it had been ‘adopted’ and what the arrangements were for review (as required by the statutory duty), officials stated that the whole of the Programme for Government and in particular priority II was the anti-poverty strategy for the purposes of s28E. Notably priority II of the Programme for Government contains among other matters, the economic strategy, which makes no reference to the principle of objective need. CAJ contends that no strategy has been adopted which meets the requirements of s28E.
A key issue for CAJ is the maintenance of the integrity of the concept, legal certainty and principle of ‘objective need’. A year ago in a front page Just News article we raised concerns over attempts to rollback this key concept. CAJ is of the view ‘objective need’ is a concept that is intended to reduce in its entirety the scope for discrimination between persons in need, by tying the allocation of resources to neutral criteria that measure deprivation irrespective of community background or other affiliation. We would be deeply concerned at any digression from the concept of objective need, which in itself ensures an approach based on equality which benefits the most disadvantaged in both main communities, as well as persons who are in neither.
Leave was granted to CAJ for judicial review on the 29 September by Mr Justice Horner. Representatives of the Executive did not concede leave but offered no substantive arguments against it being granted. Speaking after the brief leave hearing CAJ Director Brian Gormally stated “We welcome the Court’s decision and the opportunity to challenge the lack of an anti-poverty strategy. Stormont cannot simply overlook a key legal duty introduced as part of an international agreement which forms part of the peace process. It is particularly important that there is a strategy to alleviate poverty and ensure resources are targeted at those most in objective need in times when budget cuts are being imposed from London and there is the spectre of so-called welfare reform impacting on the most vulnerable in our society.” The Court timetabled a response from government within six weeks to the arguments advanced by CAJ.