Equality Commission To Investigate High Street Voucher Scheme

19 December 2021

The Equality Commission has decided to authorise an investigation into the High Street Voucher Scheme. The investigation follows a complaint from a young person, under 18, who alleged that the Department for the Economy failed to comply with its approved equality scheme when making the decision to exclude under 18s. The young person has been assisted in their complaint by the Children’s Law Centre.

Claire Kemp, Policy Officer at the Children’s Law Centre said: “Decision makers have a duty to ensure the decisions they make do not adversely impact or discriminate against sections of the population. This includes children and young people. To ensure they avoid making decisions that discriminate they have to carry out an equality screening exercise at the earliest opportunity. In this case it was clear the Department for the Economy failed to do that.

“We’re happy to assist this young person in their complaint and are pleased the Equality Commission has authorised an investigation. The Department was in the position to publicly announce the High Street Voucher Scheme in February 2021 but evidently failed to carry out an equality screening exercise until the young person complained. In fact, the screening document provided to the young person was completed, signed off and published on the same day as the response to their complaint on 10th September 2021. This was not the earliest opportunity as is required, it was an afterthought.

“Children and young people under the age of 18 play a vital role in our society. They contribute to the economy, play a crucial role in many parts of the high street economy and played a key role in navigating our way through some of the darkest months of the pandemic. Rather than treat them as an afterthought, we should be looking at ways to include them in the recovery.

“What chance do children and young people have against discrimination if Executive departments fail to uphold even their own equality duties?”

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Young People Lodge Formal Equality Complaints About The High Street Voucher Scheme

14 September 2021

A number of young people, aged under 18, have submitted formal complaints to the Department for the Economy for failing to comply with its equality scheme in relation to its decision to exclude young persons under 18s from the High Street Voucher Scheme.

The young people have been assisted in their complaints by the Children’s Law Centre (CLC). Both CLC and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) had previously submitted complaints that the Department for the Economy had not equality tested the policy at all before making policy decisions to exclude under 18s.

The complaints by young persons were made on the basis of two key failures by the Department for the Economy. Firstly, that it failed to publicly consult on the policy, including with those directly affected. Secondly, that it failed to carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on the policy before making a decision.

Claire Kemp, Policy Officer at the Children’s Law Centre said: “This is a significant development and is the direct result of a number of failures by the Department for the Economy to comply with its own Equality Scheme. Had the Department consulted, and equality assessed the policy at the earliest possible stage, as it is supposed to, the negative impact of excluding children would have been highlighted and consideration for a more inclusive policy could have taken place.

“Equality screening should be carried out at the beginning of the process for a reason. It is there to highlight any negative impact on protected groups and ensure mitigating measures are put in place to avoid discrimination.

“It is not in the gift of decision makers or public bodies to disregard such an important step, or indeed to carry out their duties after the fact. The Equality Commission has also been clear that COVID-19 is no excuse for failing to abide by statutory equality duties.

“In any case, the High Street Voucher Scheme has been in development for close to a year now and it was only after we lodged a complaint with the Department that they carried out an equality screening, completing it just days before the scheme is scheduled to go live. There has also been no consultation with young people or mitigation to negate the adverse impact on under 18s.

“This policy has not been rushed, yet fundamental steps to avoid discriminating against protected groups, including young people, have been ignored or delayed to the extent of rendering them meaningless. The Department for the Economy is clearly in breach of its Equality Scheme.”

Only following the complaints by CLC and CAJ has the Department for the Economy belatedly produced an equality screening document. This however only considers the exclusion of under 18s as a ‘minor’ impact and does not propose any remedial action or commit to a full Equality Impact Assessment.

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SEND Children Again Facing Worst Impact Of Covid School Exclusions

08 September 2021

The Children’s Law Centre has warned that children with special needs and disabilities are once again being forgotten in the pandemic response. The warning comes after reports of disabled children facing severe negative impacts as a result of exclusion from education settings due to direct contact tracing or testing positive for COVID-19.

Rachel Hogan, Special Education Needs and Disability Expert with the Children’s Law Centre said: “We have consistently raised concerns that vulnerable SEND children have been some of the hardest hit during COVID-19. We voiced our concerns early during the first lockdown and it was too long before action was taken. We are seeing it again and it must be addressed urgently.

“Children with challenging behaviour on the edge of care are being sent home from special school when being identified as being a direct contact. Those who test positive are at home with no access to education or respite for ten days. Vulnerable children are suffering, parents and carers are being injured and families are facing breakdown.

“We are seeing the impact it is having on our clients in our day to day work.”

Mrs Hogan continued: “We need to see an urgent and joined up response from both the departments of health and education to protect these children. We cannot see the same mistakes repeated from the past. There can be no delay or failure to act collectively.

“We have already witnessed the drastic impact on vulnerable children when decisions are made without fully considering the adverse impacts. We cannot be looking back in weeks or months wishing action was taken earlier. Disabled children are being hit hardest when they are excluded from educational settings. Decision makers must do all they can to ensure their needs continue to be met.”

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Children Should Not Be Excluded From the High Street Voucher Scheme

25 August 2021

The Children’s Law Centre has raised concern at the exclusion of children from the high street voucher scheme. Writing to the Minister for the Economy, the Children’s Charity requested the rationale for the decision, including any equality screening or equality impact assessment carried out by the Department.

Speaking before the Committee for the Economy was due to discuss the scheme, Claire Kemp, said:

“The Children’s Law Centre are surprised at the exclusion of under 18s from the high street voucher scheme. Not only does this ignore the fact that children are major consumers on the high street, we are also concerned its introduction breaches the Department’s statutory equality duties. We have written to the Minister to request information on any equality screening and equality impact assessment carried out to assess the adverse impact the scheme could have on children.

“We cannot understand the rationale for the exclusion of under 18s, especially given the massive contribution many made in the response to COVID-19. Despite being some of the lowest paid members in our society, many young people worked throughout the pandemic as essential workers, playing their part in getting us all through it. To exclude them from participating in the recovery through the high street voucher scheme is incredibly unfair and potentially unlawful.

“The decision also ignores the reality of children’s lives. Some children live independently of adults and some are young carers. Why should they miss out on this opportunity simply because of their age?

“Children have suffered tremendously throughout the pandemic. Disruption at school, increased stress around exams and significant concerns around the impact COVID-19 has had on their mental health. Many children and families have also been further plunged in to poverty as a result of the pandemic. This was a chance to not only stimulate the economy but also help children living in poverty at the same time, but it will now be missed unless there is a major rethink.

“The Children’s Law Centre is clear, under 18s should not be excluded from the High Street Voucher Scheme.”

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Children Facing Worst Case Scenario Over Post-Primary Admissions

01 February 2021

The Education Authority has published admissions criteria for children transferring from primary to post-primary education. This comes after the late cancellation of common entrance assessments. The transfer process now rests on a reliance, by the Minister of Education, upon schools’ Boards of Governors to develop and submit alternative criteria, without accounting for the adverse impacts of the ongoing emergency.

We cannot lose sight of the stress facing children this year. In my work at the Children’s Law Centre, I see every day the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 and policy responses to tackle the pandemic are having on groups of children. The stress and anxiety brought on by post-primary transfer in any normal year has been massively increased in the face of this year’s complexities. Then, set this beside the warnings from child health experts across the UK, including NI’s mental health champion, describing children’s welfare as “a national emergency”.

We must ask ourselves, are we doing everything in our power to help children and young people through this? Are we acting in their best interests?

Children who have been going through this constantly shifting and mentally draining process now face an array of alternative criteria, but will it end the uncertainty? The real concern now is that this is just the beginning of a new wave of stress and anxiety. This is simply not an acceptable situation for ten and eleven year olds, or their parents, to have to face when resilience is already drained.

The cold, hard reality is that P7 children are now facing the worst-case scenario, with their peers in P6 following closely behind. In a 2016 circular that was reissued in October of last year, the Department of Education stated that “all Boards of Governors are required by law to have regard to” recommendations on criteria, warning that “if a school fails to follow guidance and does not have sufficient reason for doing so the school may not be indemnified by the Education Authority if legal proceedings are initiated against the school”.

Despite these warnings, it became all too predictable that without active direction from the Department to support schools through this difficult year, children would face a wide array of different criteria, some on the ‘recommended’ list and some on the ‘not recommended’ list. Looking at schools who self-published early, that was exactly the picture emerging. Some schools adhered to the guidance, some clearly not. Ignoring guidance on non-academic criteria, or using unreasonable or unfair academic criteria, is likely to lead to legal action.

Children are now faced with criteria that differ from school to school and a long wait until they find out their fate in June. Add this to the possible prospect of a proliferation of litigation and we could see even more disruption to the transfer timetable.

That is why the Children’s Law Centre, along with 24 other organisations, wrote to the Education Minister on 13 January. In the letter we requested “that the Department of Education use its powers of Direction held under section 38(3)(a) of the Coronavirus Act 2020, along with Paragraph 14(4) of Part 3 of Schedule 17 and/or Article 101 of the Education and Libraries (NI) Order 1986 to direct school Boards of Governors of all grammar schools on suitable contingency admissions criteria for this academic year to ensure they do not unlawfully discriminate against any group of children and to consult with relevant stakeholders on what those admissions criteria should be.”

Children are facing an exceptional set of circumstances. The Department of Education holds the power to direct a fair and robust solution, in the best interests of children, that would enable the continuity of education and avoid disruption of the transfer timetable. Instead, even at this stage, it looks like children face even more uncertainty ahead.

The detrimental impact this is having on young children is playing out in front of our eyes. They are left carrying the cost of government inaction.

Rachel Hogan
Special Educational Needs and Disability Expert, Children’s Law Centre

Notes:

  • The Department of Education circular containing admissions criteria guidance can be found here.
  • A copy of the letter, sent by the Children’s Law Centre on 13 January, can be found here.
  • The Children’s Law Centre is an independent charitable organisation established in September 1997 which works towards a society where all children can participate, are valued, have their rights respected and guaranteed without discrimination and every child can achieve their full potential. The organisation is founded on the principles enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
  • The Children’s Law Centre operates a dedicated free phone legal advice line for children and young people called CHALKY and provides legal information through an online platform known as ‘REE’ and legal advice through ‘REE Live Chat’ – https://childrenslawcentre.org.uk/clhexpert/.
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