Victims and Survivors Service Limited 2020-21 Annual Report and Accounts Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of Northern Ireland

Media Release

Introduction

The Victims and Survivors Service Limited (VSS) delivers support and services to improve the health and wellbeing of victims and survivors on behalf of The Executive Office. During my audit of the 2020-21 accounts I identified concerns regarding:

  • The eligibility and equality of access to a VSS programme for education and training; and
  • The robustness of governance arrangements.

Background Information

Victims and survivors are those as defined by the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, as amended by the Commission for Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Act 2008 as any of the following:

(a) someone who is or has been physically or psychologically injured as a result of or in consequence of a conflict-related incident (conflict-related incident” means an incident appearing to the Commission to be a violent incident occurring in or after 1966 in connection with the affairs of Northern Ireland);
(b) someone who provides a substantial amount of care on a regular basis for an individual mentioned in paragraph (a); or
(c) someone who has been bereaved as a result of or in consequence of a conflict related incident.

VSS provides support to victims and survivors of the Troubles/conflict through a number of programmes including:

  • Individual Needs Programme (INP);
  • Victims Support Programme (VSP); and
  • EU PEACE programme.

INP support is delivered by VSS and community based Health and Wellbeing Caseworkers to individual victims whereas VSP funding is paid to community groups under a Letter of Offer who in turn provide services to victims. 

Broadly speaking there are two tiers of INP support for individuals presenting themselves to VSS:

  • Direct financial assistance to eligible existing clients who were registered with VSS before 31 March 2017 and new and existing bereaved clients; and
  • Needs based support for all new and existing clients providing full access to services and support to meet their Health & Wellbeing needs including Persistent Pain, Disability Aids Education and Training, Psychological Therapies, Trauma Focused Physical Activity, Social Isolation, Volunteering & Carer Respite.

Education and Training Scheme

Education and Training (E&T) is available to all clients, both new and existing within the INP Needs Based Framework. Guidance for VSS staff on the VSS Eligibility Process states that ‘the scheme provides a personalised approach to improving the health and wellbeing of victims and survivors whose education and development opportunities have been impacted by (a) specific Troubles/conflict-related incident(s), by supporting them to avail of education and training opportunities which lead to employment, enhancement of employability and career progression.’

The total spend on the Education and Training Scheme in 2020-21 was £298k (19-20- £211k). Within this amount there were 27 payments, totalling £125k and each above £4k (19-20 13 payments totalling £62k), which related to the payment of University and other Educational Fees for clients. Some of these clients received E&T financial support in previous years and many have also secured further E&T financial support in future years.  22 of the 27 payments related to University fees paid on behalf of victims of trans-generational trauma.  The table below provides an analysis (based on information provided by VSS).

 

Basis of eligibility

No of clients

2020-21

E&T awards

£

Pre 2020-21 E&T awards

Future awards (2021-22)

£

TOTAL

£

Psychological injury- Trans-generational victims

22

£102k

£14k

£59k

£173k

Psychological injury- direct involvement

5

£23k

£11k

£5k

£39k

 

27

£125k

£25k

£64k

£212k

 

A review of case files identified the following:

  • 25 of 27 - Number of clients classified as 'new' (registered after 31 March 2017).
  • 22 of 27 - Number of victims whose eligibility was based on trans-generational trauma.
  • 18 of 22 - Number of victims impacted by trans-generational trauma emanating as a result of the death of a relative in the Troubles/conflict
  • 17 of 22 - Number of victims impacted by trans-generational trauma not yet born when the conflict related incident took place. In one case the victim was born 26 years after the incident took place.
  • 17 of 22 - Number of victims impacted by trans-generational trauma whose bereavement would not be considered a close relationship.  In the majority of cases, the trans-generational relationship was outside of the scope of the client’s close family, with many being bereaved of an Uncle/Aunt.
  • 17 of 22 - Number of victims of trans-generational trauma associated with the same funded organisation.

The file review also confirmed that VSS relied primarily on referral letters and Individual Needs Consultation documentation from funded groups as confirmation of eligibility. This is contrary to VSS Guidance on the Training and Education Process which requires VSS staff to carry out an internal review of the file for evidence confirming client meets the Victims and Survivors (Northern Ireland) Order 2006. In response to queries raised by my staff, VSS advised that ‘funded groups do not determine eligibility for the INP frameworks – this is carried out by VSS. The VSS groups support where they can in providing supporting documentation to VSS to confirm eligibility’. However my staff saw no evidence of a full and proper review having been carried out by VSS staff and this raises concerns about the clarity and robustness of how the eligibility rules are applied to trans-generational cases.

It is concerning that VSS does not appear to have clearly defined criteria in place to determine eligibility to the Education and Training scheme. Currently there are no set parameters with regard to how far or wide down the generations the impact of a Troubles/conflict related incident can apply. That being the case, it would appear that VSS support for Troubles/conflict victims may be open ended long term commitment.

Based on the file review most of the victims in receipt of support were already enrolled on and had commenced degree courses (some in their final year), having availed of Student Loans to pay for their fees before they registered with VSS for support. These loans were subsequently cancelled when VSS paid their fees. Given that these clients had already availed of the opportunity to undertake a degree course without VSS support, this appears contrary to the scheme guidance.  VSS told me that it intends to review this scheme with a view to focusing on the impact of funding provided to victims. In particular, it will focus on providing support to victims who have been unable to gain access to educational opportunities as a result of trauma.  I welcome this development.  I also recommend that VSS liaises with The Executive Office to assess the equality impact of the Education and Training scheme. It is important that VSS demonstrates fair and equal opportunity for all victims and survivors and that any promotion or canvassing in relation to this scheme is across the board.

Troubles/conflict

Governance

Under current arrangements the VSS Board operates with a Chair and four members (all non-executive).  This is well below the normal complement of Chair plus seven members. Some of these positions have been vacant for some time and I am also aware that there have been a further two recent Board resignations. In addition some of the current Board members have been in position for a long time. This situation is unsustainable and impacts on the ability of the Board and it’s sub-committees to function effectively and to be quorate. I acknowledge that the appointment of new Board members is the responsibility of The Executive Office and am aware that VSS have been pressing for action to be taken to address this concerning situation.

I am also concerned about the structure of the VSS Audit and Risk Committee. The Chair and two of the committee members, whilst considered by VSS to be independent are employees within the Northern Ireland Civil Service and therefore, in my view, not truly independent. Furthermore two members of the committee also work in the same organisation.

It is imperative that The Executive Office progresses the recruitment for new Board members as a matter of urgency. I also recommend that the composition and independence of the VSS Audit and Risk Committee is reviewed.

My audit opinion on the 2020-21 financial statements is not qualified in respect of any matters raised in this report. I will monitor how VSS addresses the issues raised in this report and consider any implications for the audit of the 2021-22 Annual Report and Accounts.

 

KJ Donnelly

Comptroller and Auditor General

Northern Ireland Audit Office

1 Bradford Court

Galwally

Belfast

BT8 6RB

 

March 2022