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Pressure mounts on Community Care to reverse changes to eligibility criteria

Pressure mounted yesterday for Community Care Ltd to reverse changes introduced last year to eligibility criteria for its ‘community officer scheme’, with campaigner and Unite the Union claiming the sudden change had left many people facing financial hardship.

Campaign group Community Care Action Group wants the charity to revert back to the previous criteria and pay arrears to those who have missed out on the allowance due to the change.

The group said it had engaged in dialogue with both Community Care and the Gibraltar Government, which funds the charity, but that its 184 members were frustrated at the lack of progress to a solution.

And later, Unite reiterated its earlier call for a full consultation on the changes and for short-term measures to address the situation faced by those who had planned their retirement prior to the announcement of the changes last year.

The opening salvo in the latest drive to urge a rethink on the changes came from the Community Care Action Group.

At a meeting last Monday, the group unanimously decided to “…escalate action for public support and public protest.”

The changes to Community Care came into effect in February last year and locked out new male applicants who would otherwise have been eligible at 60.

At the time, the trustees of Community Care said the changes were necessary to ensure payments targeted those who most need them and, in effect, meant reverting to the previous system used when the charity was first established.

The charity said the scheme had changed over the years from its original format, with relaxed eligibility criteria meaning that even men who retired with large pensions received full payments amounting to an “unjustifiable” £50 per hour of volunteering.

Community Care said the system had become “unfair,” hence the need for changes including means testing for employment income and pensions.

But the Community Care Action Group said the changes were implemented without prior warning or consultation, meaning many people were left without payments they had factored into the financial planning for retirement.

In a statement, the group said it had “…tried to resolve this issue amicably through dialogue, however many of the members believe that they are not getting anywhere fast enough due to the government and Community Care Ltd. wilfully delaying the process to resolve it and not making any appropriate proposals.”

“This matter needs to be addressed immediately, as members are suffering financial hardship.”

The group said it planned to consult with “various bodies” and gather support including through public protests and petitioning the government to re-instate Community Care as it was prior to the changes last year, until “a viable and fair alternative” can be found.

It also said it would call for a public inquiry over “an unjust change” that it said affects every family in Gibraltar “…as the majority of males attaining the age of 60 have been suddenly deprived of this source of - an alternative to a pension - income, without any consultation, nor due notice.”

“It is an expected norm that any modern parliamentary democracy will set out a consultative process, leading to a parliamentary bill with a timetable, that would then allow the persons affected by such an important proposed change, to allow our citizens a long enough period of time to make alternative financial plans,” the group said in the statement.

It cited as an example the UK Pensions Bill in 2011, which had given a seven-year notice period for an increase in the pensionable age for women, contrasting that with the “overnight and unjust” changes to Community Care.

“Many of their members, through no fault of their own, were relying on this income till reaching the male state retirement age of 65,” the group said.

It noted that Community Care had been set up in 1988 during the GSLP’s time in office and continued by successive governments since, adding that it compensated for the “poor state pension”.

It said the money used by the government to fund Community Care should be “ring-fenced exclusively for retirement” as happens with government occupational pensions.

“The members of the Community Care Action Group only want is rightfully theirs, what they were expecting to receive and had included in their financial plans for retirement as has been the custom and practice for the last 33 years, through the Community Care charity,” the group said in the statement.

“It is reasonable for the retirees to expect to receive what their peers have been and are continuing to receive to this day.”

“In the meantime, until a well thought out and debated bill becomes enacted in parliament, they need the community care allowance as was prior to 17th February 2020, to be reinstated forthwith and arrears paid to their members.”

UNITE PRESSURE

Last night, Unite the Union added its voice to calls for a full consultation with all relevant stakeholders including unions, charities and those eligible for the Community Care scheme before any “unilateral changes” are implemented.

The union said its stance was in line with Unite’s earlier public statements prior to the Covid crisis and also in letters written to the Chair of Gibraltar Community Care Limited and the Chief Minister in March 2020.

Stuart Davies, Unite National Officer for Gibraltar said: “The issue of Community Care started to unfold and develop in February 2020, as stated at the time Unite were and remain deeply concerned with the commentary provided at the time to justify the unilateral changes to the scheme including claims of abuse.”

“The onset of the pandemic curtailed the union’s activities around this issue and inevitably the focus, resources and work of the union switched to supporting our membership as Covid changed workplaces and our communities.”

“The issue of Community Care has though remained an important issue that is raised consistently by our membership and now is an appropriate time to reiterate the call for a full consultation with all relevant stakeholders as to the future of Community Care.”

“The union’s position remains unchanged, if there is real evidence for reform of the charity and the community officer allowance, then this should be subject to a transparent and public consultation where any underlying issues within the scheme can be positively addressed.”

“What the union cannot accept is that such sweeping changes are undertaken with no consultation, when members approaching the age of 60 are advised that they will no longer be eligible to participate as a community officer and be in receipt of the allowance.”

“Undertaking the role as community officer has formed part of the retirement plans for a number of our members, many have now had to alter those plans.”

“The community officers make a valuable contribution in society, providing support to charities and other voluntary organisations, that good work is in danger of being undone.”

Mr Davies said the union “warmly welcomes” the announcement by the Chief Minister in his May Day address that a consultation will commence on equalising the pension age for men and women.

He said that if this was implemented positively, then this development had the potential to resolve the Community Care issue, “but this is likely to be a long-term or medium term solution at best”.

“A resolution in the short-term is required and that must be kicked off with a full consultation on the changes allowing all stakeholders the opportunity to participate,” he added.

“The union’s Executive will be meeting in the coming weeks to reaffirm Unite’s position on Community Care and consider next steps, as well as seeking to re-engage with Gibraltar Community Care Limited and the Chief Minister on this important issue and to pressure for a full and transparent public consultation.”

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