'THINK' - August 2023 Edition
The Advice NI Policy & Information team is delighted to publish the August 2023 edition of our policy eNewsletter ‘THINK’.
Advice NI Responds to Restriction of Discretionary Support Grants
Advice NI is extremely concerned about the changes the Department for Communities is making to provision of Discretionary Support grants in light of the Secretary of State’s budget for Northern Ireland departments.
Discretionary Support expenditure last year reached £40 million for grants and £9 million for loans. However, this year budgets return to 21-22 figures, with only £20 million for grants and £9 million for loans. The first 3 months of this year has already seen £9.8 spent million on grants, leaving only £10.2 million for grant applications in the remaining 9 months of this year.
As a result, the Department is restricting grant awards to only those items deemed absolutely essential and extending the exclusion period in which an item can be re-awarded to a period of 24 months except in the event of a disaster or where the claimant is setting up a new home.
Speaking about the cuts to Discretionary Support grants, Bob Stronge, Advice NI Chief Executive said:
“We must remember that the Discretionary Support scheme already operates on the basis of the applicant being in extreme need or in a crisis situation. It is unacceptable that the Department has found itself in the position of having to balance the books by cutting support to those vulnerable people most in need.
“We recognise that the real problem does not rest with the Department. It is having to deal with an inadequate budget settlement which means that any increase in funding towards the Discretionary Support scheme for those in crisis means that other vital services across the Department being cut to make up the shortfall.
“We know that the Chancellor has bolstered the GB Household Support Fund, the GB equivalent of the Discretionary Support scheme, to the tune of an additional £1bn acknowledging the cost of living crisis which is hitting everyone but hitting the poorest hardest.
“A solution, perhaps the only solution, to the cut to Discretionary Support is an increased budget allocation to ensure our most vulnerable people are protected. It would also help if we had a functioning Assembly with local politicians prioritising spending and supporting our most vulnerable people.”
Cuts to Discretionary Support grants are an attack on the most vulnerable
As noted above, consequent to the Secretary of State's budget, the Department for Communities has proposed changes to the Discretionary Support scheme for 2023-24 in an effort to ensure the Department has the capability to support those most in need for the duration of the 2023-24 financial year. In view of the potential impact of the proposed changes, an EQIA consultation has been launched, with the final date for responses being 25 September 2023.
The consultation document sets out two options for dealing with the changed budget picture:
- Do nothing (which suggests budget would be exhausted well before the end of financial year).
- Restrict awards to basic needs and extend repeat item exclusion period from 12 to 24 months.
The Department has considered that option 2 above would best meet the policy aim of ensuring the needs of the most vulnerable can continue to be met throughout the financial year in the context of the Discretionary Support budget limits.
Advice NI is submitting its response, and encourages members to do the same in order to represent the views of their clients. We have produced a template that can be tailored to your own response, which you can find on Advicelink (accessible to registered members only) or by request from the Policy & Information team.
Consultation on changes to the Discretionary Support Scheme
DfC Equality Scheme
In fact, the Discretionary Support policy changes proposed by the Department for Communities have already been in place since 3 July 2023. In view of these changes and the Department’s ongoing consultation, on 26 July the Advice NI Policy & Information team held a meeting for front-line advisers to hear from the Department, the Discretionary Support Commissioner and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland.
Advisers heard that new guidance has been introduced for claims made after 3 July, including the following key changes:
- No new application for the same item within 24 months (previously 12), unless there’s been a disaster or setting up requirement.
- Grants no longer allow carers to stay overnight.
In addition, guidance relating to items has been split into 3 tiers:
- Essential Items: cooker, washing machine, under-counter fridge, 2-3 seater sofa, armchair, single/double bed, bunk beds, cot/cot bedding, window coverings for privacy.
- Additional items allowed due to relevant health conditions: microwave, tumble dryer, fridge freezer, high-back/reclining chair, bedding, dining table, chairs, floor coverings. (This list is not exhaustive.)
- 'Setting Up' or disaster situation: king-size bed, toaster, kettle, iron, bedroom furniture, clothing, towels. (This list is not exhaustive.)
In light of the changes that have been made, we reiterated our request that the Department publish its decision making guidance to bring Discretionary Support into line with all other areas of social security. In addition, the Advice NI Policy & Information team will continue to press the Department to engage more with the independent advice network to make its procedures in this area as transparent as possible.
However, whilst we recognise that guidance exists, and must be taken into account, it is important to note that it does not have the same force as legislation. Should advisers need to appeal a decision, the relevant legislation should carry more weight than the applicable guidance (it is notable that the changes to the Discretionary Support guidance are not being accompanied by changes in regulations).
Clear dispute pathways exist, and page 10 of the Office of the Discretionary Support Commissioner’s Annual Report sets these out in a simple, diagrammatic format. Should front-line advisers need support in interpreting this guidance or supporting clients to dispute decision, they can contact the Advice NI Policy & Information team for assistance.
Blue Volumes (Northern Ireland Legislation) (see volume 12 for Discretionary Support)
In addition to the impact on Discretionary Support, we are also aware that similar budget issues have arisen with regard to Discretionary Housing Payments, which provide extra help with rent if Universal Credit or Housing Benefit does not fully cover the rent charge.
Following detailed engagement with the Housing Executive, Advice NI can confirm the following policy changes in relation to the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme in Northern Ireland.
Firstly, the decision has been taken to end Discretionary Housing Payments for cases in payment over 2 years, which has been applied with immediate effect. In total, 3,321 claimants have been advised that their award has ended. Moving forward, claimants who reach their 2-year limit will see their award terminated.
Secondly, for existing cases still in payment, a maximum award of £20 per week has been put in place, although the award for many claimants is less than this figure. All new claimants will also be subject to this change.
The Housing Executive advise that the situation is being kept under constant review and these decisions may be subject to further change. It is also worth noting that if a claimant is unhappy with the decision on their Discretionary Housing Payment, they can ask for the decision to be looked at again. This is called a review and can be made by telephone, email or in writing to the local Housing Benefit Unit.
Speaking about the changes to the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme, Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, Advice NI said:
“It is so disappointing to see this cut in support again targeting our most vulnerable, low income households. We must remember that the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme provides a vital lifeline for private tenants struggling to afford their rent.
“It must be acknowledged that a decade of welfare reform and austerity has created a situation where, in many situations, there is a significant shortfall between contractual rents charged by landlords and the support provide by Housing Benefit or Universal Credit. For example, the Local Housing Allowance rate at which Housing Benefit or Universal Credit is paid, although increased to the 30th percentile of market rents in April 2020, has been frozen ever since. An increase to the Local Housing Allowance is an essential element of any solution to this problem.
“This situation is also compounded by rising interest rates which has led to increased mortgage costs for many buy-to-let landlords who have in turn increased rents in what is known as the ‘pass-through effect’.
“It is no surprise that there is an unprecedented demand on the Discretionary Housing Payment scheme at this time. It is unacceptable that the Housing Executive has found itself in the position of having to balance the books by cutting support to those vulnerable people most in need. In fact, this scheme needs to be bolstered to provide the support needed at this time, otherwise there is no doubt that there is an increased risk of arrears, evictions and homelessness.”
Increased Demand Drives Restrictions to Cash-Limited Rent Support Fund
The Department for Communities has announced that it will be taking part in a review of Income Support (IS) claims launched by the Department for Work & Pensions. The review exercise is being carried out because it has been established that some people made new claims for IS when they should have been told to claim income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) instead.
Due to differences in the calculation of these benefits, some people may have been under or overpaid. Where claimants have been underpaid they will receive an extra-statutory payment. Any overpayments will be written off.
Whilst the Department will attempt to identify relevant claims, they have also asked people who think they have been affected to contact them for more information. If people believe they have made a claim that meets the criteria below they can apply by calling 0800 022 4250, choosing option 2 for Income Support and stating the reason for their call as ‘Income Support Claims Review exercise’. Lines are open Monday to Friday, 9am to 4pm.
Special Payment if you claimed Income Support instead of ESA
Claimants affected are those who:
- made an IS claim on the grounds of a disability or health condition since 31 Jan 2011;
- were not receiving Incapacity Benefit or Severe Disablement Allowance when they made that IS claim.
Current IS claimants
Some people may still be receiving IS erroneously, and the purpose of this exercise is to put them into the position they should have been in – that is, claiming income-related ESA.
To resolve this issue those affected will be required to undergo a Work Capability Assessment (WCA). Only those IS claimants assessed as having 'limited capability for work' (LCW) or 'limited capability for work and work-related activity' (LCWRA) will be eligible to receive a special payment.
If the claimant is assessed as not having LCW or LCWRA they will not be entitled to income-related ESA and will have to claim Universal Credit (UC) instead. In that case, they will likely also be subject to some level of work-related requirements.
It is expected that only a small number of people will be in this position.
Claimants who have moved to ESA or UC
Anyone who meets the criteria above and has since moved from IS to ESA or UC may be eligible for consideration of a special payment. However, a payment will only be considered if they were subject to a WCA as part of their claim to ESA or UC and were assessed as having LCW or LCWRA.
People no longer in receipt of IS, ESA or UC
Some people may have had a claim for IS and either ESA or UC in the past, but for a variety of reasons that claim has since ended. Provided that they had a claim to IS that met the criteria outlined above and they subsequently claimed either ESA or UC and were assessed as having LCW or LCWRA they can contact the Department for their claim to be considered.
If the Department does not hold any evidence to show that the customer qualifies for the exercise, which may be the case particularly for those people no longer receiving IS, ESA or UC, it will ask the customer to supply documentation. Where they cannot do this, they will not be eligible for a special payment.
Where clients encounter problems with the administration of the review exercise or the eligibility criteria we would strongly encourage advisers to get in touch with the Policy & Information team, who will raise these matters with the Department.
The Department for Communities has confirmed its funding decisions for the 2023-24 business year, following the restricted budget allocation handed down by the Secretary of State.
The announcement included the following key ‘mitigations’:
- Funding for 280 community and voluntary organisations, including independent advice services, to be maintained at 2022-23 levels.
- Budget for Discretionary Support grants set at £20m.
Department outlines final budget allocations
In our response to the Department’s consultation on the allocation, we outlined serious concerns about the Department’s capacity to deliver social security services to claimants and the impact that such a restricted budget will have on the Department’s ability to deliver on the report of the Anti-Poverty Strategy Expert Panel.
Social security system in Northern Ireland being eroded as a result of budget allocation to the Department for Communities
The NIPSO review of the Department’s progress in relation to its 2021 investigation of further evidence in PIP claims found that DfC has implemented a number of recommendations, but that it still has to do more.
‘PIP and the Value of Further Evidence – a follow-up report’ monitors the progress made since June 2021. Ombudsman Margaret Kelly made 33 recommendations. The follow-up report shows that out of these 10 have been fully met, 18 partly met, and 5 not met. In particular, Ms Kelly welcomed the fact there is now:
- Clearer information to claimants about how further evidence is gathered and used.
- Better training and guidance to Case Managers so they can obtain further evidence when it is needed.
- More information to claimants about the mandatory reconsideration process.
- A better process for investigating complaints about further evidence.
However, she said she still has concerns that:
- Decision letters sent to claimants are still difficult to understand.
- It is still not clear to claimants if their health professionals will be, or have been, contacted during the assessment of their claim.
- Further focus is required to improve the data collated about the role of further evidence to help the Department to get decisions right first time.
The Cliff Edge Coalition is a group of over 100 organisations from across Northern Ireland, which was formed in 2018 to highlight shared concerns over the potential ‘cliff edge’ created by the ending of the welfare mitigations package in 2020.
The Coalition is now seeking to highlight that Northern Ireland faces another ‘cliff edge’ during the current Cost of Living crisis.
Whilst the Coalition fully endorses all the recommendations made in the recent Welfare Mitigations Independent Review Report, they have decided to focus on three of these in their new campaign:
- Resolving the five week wait in Universal Credit
- Mitigating the two-child limit
- Providing support to private renters affected by the Local Housing Allowance
Drawing on an earlier case brought to the Court of Justice of the European Union by Law Centre NI in 2021, a recent ruling of the Upper Tribunal in Great Britain has decided that an individual assessment is necessary in every case before refusing someone with pre-settled status access to social security benefits.
The Law Centre has welcomed the DWP and DfC’s commitment to an interim policy, which means that any EU citizen with pre-settled status and unable to work will be assessed individually to establish whether they are living in hardship and unable to meet their most basic needs. If the assessment shows that there is a risk that the person – or their children – cannot live in dignified conditions because of their financial circumstances, then they will be entitled to Universal Credit.
Positive change in social security policy
The Home Office have announced that from September 2023 people with pre-settled status under the EU Settlement Scheme will automatically have their status extended by 2 years if they have not yet obtained settled status.
The process will be automated and reflected in the holder’s digital status, while they will also be notified of the extension by the Home Office. This will ensure that nobody loses their immigration status if they do not apply to switch from pre-settled to settled status.
The Home Office also intends to take steps to automatically convert as many eligible pre-settled status holders as possible to settled status once they are eligible for it, without them needing to make an application. During 2024, automated checks of pre-settled status will establish their ongoing continuous residence in the UK.
EU Settlement Scheme enhancements confirmed
At its meeting ending on 2 August 2023, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee voted by a majority of 6–3 to increase its Bank Rate by 0.25 percentage points, to 5.25%, marking the 14th consecutive rise in interest rates.
Advice NI advice services continue to support clients who are deeply concerned about the ongoing interest rate rises and who are struggling to keep up mortgage and other financial repayments.
Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, flagged a particular issue facing some mortgage holders:
"We are particularly worried about social security benefit claimants with mortgages who are reliant on the inadequate Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) scheme. The interest rate used to calculate SMI is currently 2.65%, which is woefully inadequate for benefit claimants who are on a variable rate or coming to the end of a fixed rate deal.
“Despite the launch this week of the 'Consumer Duty' by the financial regulator (the Financial Conduct Authority), which strengthens consumer protection rules across financial services and requires firms to act to deliver good outcomes for customers, we know that many people are stressed and fearful. Given the impact of inflation and the cost of living crisis, household budgets are already stretched to breaking point.
“The really worrying issue is that according to UK Finance, the collective voice for the banking and finance industry, it is estimated that there are around 800,000 fixed-rate deals ending in the second half of 2023, while around 1.6m deals are due to end in 2024.”
Bank Rate increased to 5.25% - August 2023
Advice NI concerned for homeowners after yet another interest rate raise
Consumer Duty sets higher standards for financial services customers
In consultation with the principal mortgage lenders and the Financial Conduct Authority, the government has established a Mortgage Charter that sets out the commitments lenders will make to their regulated residential mortgage borrowers:
- From 26th June, a borrower will not be forced to leave their home without their consent unless in exceptional circumstances, in less than a year from their first missed payment.
- With effect from 10th July customers approaching the end of a fixed rate deal will have the chance to lock in a deal up to six months ahead. They will also be able to manage their new deal and request a better like for like deal with their lender right up until their new term starts, if one is available.
- A new deal between lenders, the FCA and the government permitting customers who are up to date with their payments to:
- switch to interest-only payments for six months or
- extend their mortgage term to reduce their monthly payments and give customers the option to revert to their original term within 6 months by contacting their lender
In addition, the Financial Conduct Authority has introduced new guidance for lenders and information for borrowers on how to address difficulties meeting payments, and the industry body UK Finance has commenced a campaign to highlight the support available to borrowers.
FCA: Support available for mortgages as interest rates rise
Reach Out campaign launch: UK Finance highlights lender support for concerned mortgage holders
The Department of Education has announced it is not proceeding with proposed cuts to a range of Early Years programmes, including the Pathway Fund, Sure Start, Bright Start and Toybox.
However, the cessation of the Engage, Healthy Happy Minds and School Holiday Food Grant schemes from the end of March 2023 and reductions to the Education Authority’s Aggregated Schools Budget and Block Grant have been retained in an effort to meet an estimated funding gap of around £382m.
The Department will shortly publish an Equality Impact Assessment Consultation as part of the final budget. Interested parties are encouraged to make responses. The consultation responses received will be used to inform further mitigation measures and reallocation of any additional funding available during 2023-24.
Department of Education protects funding for vulnerable children and young people
A High Court Judge has quashed the Department of Health’s Continuing Healthcare policy in a landmark legal challenge brought by the Commissioner for Older People for Northern Ireland, Eddie Lynch.
The ruling was made in relation to the impact and delivery of both the 2010 policy and the new policy which came into effect in 2021. Continuing Healthcare is which is designed to ensure that everyone, no matter their age or where they reside, receives free healthcare, including care home costs if their care needs are assessed as being primarily healthcare needs as opposed to social care needs.
Ruling on the case, Mr Justice Scoffield determined that Belfast Health and Social Care Trust’s refusal of an application for continuing healthcare was “procedurally unfair”, and also criticised the Department of Health for failing to provide guidance on the application of the policy to the Trust. The Judge ruled that the application in question must be re-assessed using a lawful process and following guidance from the Department which must now be issued.
The Judge also quashed the new 2021 policy “on the basis that it was adopted in breach of its obligation to have due regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity between persons of different age under section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998” and that “the screening exercise undertaken did not begin to properly consider the true impact of the new policy on older people.”
Giving his reaction to the judgement, Eddie Lynch said:
“I am … delighted that the Judge has quashed the 2021 policy, making particular reference to the failure to properly assess the detrimental impact of such a policy on older people, which I regard as a monumental success, not least because Northern Ireland lacks any age discrimination legislation. This sends a very clear message that policies which adversely impact older people will not go unchallenged.
“The 2021 Policy has been abolished and it is now up to the Department of Health to issue guidance on the application of the 2010 Policy and to work urgently with the Trusts to put in place a lawful process, which will fairly assess an older person’s needs. This will ensure those with genuine healthcare needs receive the free healthcare they are entitled to, that is free to the rest of us.”
Commissioner for Older People’s Judicial Review Triumph as High Court Quashes Healthcare Policy
The Commons Work and Pensions Committee recently conducted an inquiry into the cost of living support payments and the Law Centre has published its evidence to the Committee.
In their response LCNI ‘welcome the Government’s decision to extend these much-needed cost-of-living payments, particularly considering the announcement in NI this week of how acute budgetary cuts may impact NI social security.’ However, they also highlight gaps in support for carers and low income households missing out on the support due to the failure to include Housing Benefit as one of the qualifying benefits, as well as those affected by the restricted qualifying periods.
Inquiry into cost-of-living support payments
The Commons Work & Pensions Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into benefit levels in the UK as a likely driver of cost of living pressures. A number of submissions have been heard, and you can access oral transcripts and written evidence at the inquiry web page.
Benefit levels in the UK
The Department for Communities has published its latest round of benefit statistics covering the period to February 2023. Statistics show a continued increase in claims to the reformed benefits, Universal Credit and Personal Independence Payment.
Benefits Statistics Summary Publication (National Statistics) - February 2023
The Universal Credit (Childcare) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023, effective from 28 June 2023, confirm the increase in the maximum amounts of childcare payable through Universal Credit.
As a consequence of the amendment, the maximum amounts for the childcare costs element of Universal Credit increases to £950.92 in respect of one child and £1,630.15 for two or more children.
An additional measure exempting advance payments of childcare costs introduced in Great Britain was not required in Northern Ireland as the relevant amendments in respect of payments from the Adviser Discretion Fund had already been made in 2021.
Universal Credit (Childcare) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023
ADM Memo 9/23
Increase in Universal Credit childcare support confirmed
The Social Security, Universal Credit and State Pension (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023, which came into operation on 29 June 2023, make the following changes to the rules relating to Universal Credit:
- when the limited capability for work and work-related activity element is included in a Universal Credit award;
- the time for claiming Universal Credit;
- the amount of the transitional Severe Disability Premium element included in a Universal Credit award for certain joint claimants.
The amendments resolve certain issues in the relevant regulations arising from omissions or lack of clarity in relation to the areas listed. Further detail can be found in the Department’s accompanying decision making memo.
Social Security, Universal Credit and State Pension (Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023
ADM Memo 10/23
New legislation has been issued to facilitate the use of on-line forms for Budgeting Loans. In force from 31 July 2023, the legislation permits the use of an electronic claim form and electronic communications when making a claim for a Budgeting Loan.
Social Security (Budgeting Loans) (Electronic Communications) (Amendment) Order (Northern Ireland) 2023
Emergency legislation has been issued to enable local authorities to provide housing and homelessness assistance to those fleeing Sudan.
In force from 15 May 2023, the legislation exempts persons who were residing in Sudan before 15 April 2023 and left Sudan in connection with the violence which rapidly escalated at that time from the Habitual Residence Test otherwise applicable in relation to eligibility for an allocation of housing accommodation and for housing assistance.
Allocation of Housing and Homelessness (Eligibility) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023
Equivalent legislation has also been introduced, and came into effect from 18 May 2023, to waive the requirement to pass the Habitual Residence Test in order to access means-tested benefits.
Social Security (Habitual Residence and Past Presence) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023
ADM Memo 7/23
DMG Memo Vol 2/99
In force from 9 July 2023, an amendment to social security regulations makes changes to provisions exempting certain compensation payments from treatment as income and capital for the purposes of calculating entitlement to social security benefits. The payments concerned are those made in relation to Grenfell Tower, Post Office Horizon compensation and vaccine damages.
Social Security (Income and Capital Disregards) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023
ADM Memo 11/23
DMG Memo Vols 4/156, 5/121, 8/106, 9/56, 13/127 & 14/77
Following engagement by the Advice NI Policy & Information team the Department for Communities has published its decision making guidance on managed migration procedures for Universal Credit. The new chapter provides invaluable guidance on decision making procedures for transitional protection.
Advice for Decision Making - M: Universal Credit
Claimants in Northern Ireland can use the Department for Work & Pensions online service to request a letter proving entitlement to any of the following benefits:
- Employment and Support Allowance
- Income Support
- Jobseeker’s Allowance
- Pension Credit
- State Pension
The person requesting the letter will need to provide their National Insurance Number. It will take at least 5 days for the letter to be sent. Proof of benefits is required for accessing a range of support, including reduced health costs and free school meals
Get a proof of benefit letter
The government’s controversial Illegal Migration Bill, which was designed to address the issue of small boat crossings, received Royal Assent on 20 July 2023. The majority of the provisions in the bill have not yet come into force, and will need to be enacted by means of further regulations. However, immigration advisers seeking a better understanding of the provisions now in force can read the following helpful summary from Free Movement:
The Illegal Migration Act 2023: what has changed?
Meanwhile, the Public Law Project have outlined from a policy perspective ‘what the government could, and should, have done to protect vulnerable migrants and improve Home Office efficiency.’
A fairer alternative to the Illegal Migration Bill
In its new report on the state of hunger in Northern Ireland, the Trussell Trust has established that between 1 April and 30 September 2022 their food banks distributed 32,000 emergency parcels to people in Northern Ireland, including 13,400 for children.
This represents a 25% increase from the previous year and a 194% increase compared to the same period five years ago. Between 1 April and 30 September 2022 almost 10,000 people in Northern Ireland were forced to turn to a food bank in the Trussell Trust network for the first time.
Commenting on the findings, the Trussell Trust’s Northern Ireland Network Lead, Johnny Currie, said, “It’s not right that people in our community are needing a charity’s help to put food on the table. Everyone in Northern Ireland should be able to afford the essentials.”
Hunger in NI Report
Comptroller and Auditor General, Dorinnia Carville, has published a report on ‘The Judicial Review Process in Northern Ireland’. Judicial review offers a means to challenge the legality of how a public body (or other organisation performing public functions) has arrived at a specific decision.
The report provides a factual overview of the judicial review process in Northern Ireland, the number of judicial reviews, the outcomes, the time taken to complete judicial reviews and the associated costs.
The report found that in the majority of cases, judicial reviews do not find in favour of the applicant, with approximately 1 in 8 applicants (13%) being successful in their challenges to the legality of public bodies’ decisions or actions.
Commenting on the report Mrs Carville said:
“The judicial review process in Northern Ireland is an important means of holding public decision makers to account, however concerns have been expressed about the extent to which judicial reviews delay, and add costs to, public sector projects.
“The figures show that the number of applications in respect of judicial reviews has generally been decreasing and as such does not support the view that there is an increasing appetite to challenge decisions made by public bodies through judicial review.”
The Judicial Review Process in Northern Ireland
If you are interested in a bespoke training course on judicial reviews processes, with particular reference to their application in social security cases, can contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
The Coalition of Carers Organisations NI has published ‘A New Deal for unpaid carers in Northern Ireland’, which sets out the priority policy changes they want to see in the realms of health and social care, welfare, housing, employment and more.
There are over 220,000 people providing unpaid care for a sick or disabled family member or friend in Northern Ireland, many being driven to breaking point by unrelenting caring duties, few opportunities for a break, poverty and patchy support from Health and Social Care services. The New Deal outlines a strategic approach based on the following recommendations:
- Expansions and greater flexibility in the provision of community care packages.
- Reform of adult social care to:
- Ensure greater consistency in high-quality service provision across the whole of Northern Ireland.
- Improve the pay and terms and conditions of social care workers.
- Expansion of the Self-Directed Support navigator roles in each Health Trust.
- A central library of information and signposting on all of the services and support available to unpaid carers in the place they live.
- A regional Carers’ Register and training for all HSC and other relevant public sector staff (eg education) on identifying carers and adding them to the register.
- New Key Support Workers to provide information, advice and training opportunities to unpaid carers.
- A duty on Health and Social Care bodies to treat unpaid carers as expert partners in the care of the person they look after.
The Coalition of Carers Organisations NI is a collective of community and voluntary sector groups and trade unions that support and advocate for unpaid carers in Northern Ireland. The Coalition is chaired by Carers NI.
A New Deal for unpaid carers in Northern Ireland
A new report from the National Audit Office provides an early assessment of the progress the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) is making with its Health Transformation Programme. It covers the baseline performance of functional health assessments, DWP’s approach to transforming functional health assessments, and challenges implementing the Programme.
The report notes the ‘ambitious’ scope of the project, particularly in light of the government’s recent Health and Disability White Paper. However, the auditors also note that there remain ‘gaps in DWP’s approach that it still needs to fill, particularly in terms of how it will integrate the service between providers, build an interim model that enables sufficient testing, and evaluate whether the Programme is on track to deliver the planned benefits.’
Transforming health assessments for disability benefits
Funded by the Nuffield Foundation and drawing on the findings of a three-year research project, a new report assesses how the benefit cap and the two-child limit affects families with three or more children. The authors of the report argue that the evidence gathered “provides an overwhelming … case for the need to end both the two-child limit and the benefit cap, and to centre support for families with children in a much more positive light within the social security system.”
Needs and entitlements: Welfare reform and larger families
New research from the Women’s Regional Consortium and Ulster University describes women as "shock absorbers" of poverty – going without food and heating to protect their children and families, with 43% of women who took part in the survey having skipped a meal. Key findings of the research include:
- 91% said they had difficulty paying their bills as a result of Cost-of-Living increases.
- 75% said they were having the most difficulty paying for their food shopping, 73% said electricity, 52% gas, 38% travel costs, 34% internet bills, 30% home heating oil and 27% school costs.
- 56% were in debt and of these 82% said they had to borrow as a result of Cost-of-Living increases.
- 90% felt that the Cost-of-Living Crisis had impacted on their physical or mental health or both.
- Of those who had children, 78% felt that Cost-of-Living increases had negatively impacted on their children.
- 92% reported that Cost-of-Living increases had negatively impacted on their ability to take part in social activities.
- 78% said they felt cold or hungry or both as a result of Cost-of-Living increases.
- 41% needed to use a foodbank/other charitable support due to increases in the Cost-of-Living.
To address this the report outlines 5 key priorities:
- Government should provide a long-term sustainable funding model which recognises the significant return on investment that Women’s Centres provide.
- The Holiday Hunger Scheme needs to be urgently reinstated to mitigate against food insecurity for women and children during the upcoming summer holiday period. The Healthy Start Scheme needs to be increased in line with inflation and those who are entitled should be automatically enrolled onto the scheme.
- There is an urgent need to invest in services to prevent long term mental illness and loss of life.
- The School Uniform Grant needs to be increased to reflect the average cost of a school uniform (including PE kit) which would move it closer in line with other countries in the UK. The grant should also include an allowance for school shoes.
- We support the recommendations from the Independent Review of Discretionary Support and want to see increased investment in this vital fund to address rising levels of financial hardship and the impact of the Cost-of-Living Crisis.
Further information, including a PDF copy of the full report, is available on the Women’s Regional Consortium website:
Womens Regional Consortium: Research
BBC: Women 'bearing the brunt' of rising prices
A research study from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Legal Education Fund examined the extent to which Universal Credit adheres to the rule of law principles of transparency, procedural fairness and lawfulness and how the design and implementation of the UK’s first digital-by-design benefit aligns with the social security legislation underpinning it.
The report finds significant problems with the handling of claims, decision making, communication of decisions and the disputes process as a consequence of digitisation, and offers ten recommendations for improvement:
- The UC digital claim process should be updated to ask all relevant questions and fully investigate claimant circumstances and entitlement.
- The appeals notice in UC should be amended to accurately reflect claimants’ appeal rights.
- The payment statement should be updated to provide further information to claimants about how their award has been calculated.
- At a minimum, the DWP should delay freezing journals for at least one month after closure to allow claimants time to apply for a mandatory reconsideration (the first step in the appeals process in UC).
- The DWP should introduce a ‘request a mandatory reconsideration’ function on the UC journal, to help claimants exercise their appeal rights.
- Payment statements should not be overwritten. Original and amended statements should be made available for comparison.
- The DWP should amend the digital claim process to allow for advance claims.
- The DWP should take action to remove the concept of claim closure from systems, processes and guidance to ensure language is accurate and reflects the legal framework.
- The DWP should conduct a review of the information provided to claimants in decision letters, with the aim of providing more adequate explanations for decisions.
- The DWP should make the source code for the UC digital system publicly available.
In spring 2023, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Poverty launched a short inquiry into the (in)adequacy of social security benefits, putting out a call for evidence then holding two evidence sessions. The first of these invited policy experts from think tanks, NGOs and academia, and the second focused on those with lived experience of the social security system.
The new report, “Enough to be able to live, not just to survive”, brings together information from submissions to the APPG’s call for evidence and makes a number of recommendations to government, including increasing the levels of benefits, especially Carer’s Allowance, establishing an independent process for doing so, and improving procedures for uprating, including to the Local Housing Allowance. The APPG also advocate scrapping the under 25 rate of Universal Credit, the two-child limit and the benefit cap, and reforming deductions policy.
APPG publishes report on the (in)adequacy of social security
A public consultation on the provision of free period products has been launched. The consultation states that period products are essential items for personal care and should be available to everyone who needs them, regardless of their economic status.
To address this need, the Assembly passed the Period Products (Free Provision) Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. The Act places importance on respect for dignity and aims to remove financial barriers to accessing period products. The consultation which runs for 12 weeks was launched on Monday 26 June 2023 and closes on Monday 18 September 2023.
The consultation document and details of how to respond:
Period Products Consultation
TEO Period Products Consultation News
The Public Law Project (PLP) is conducting research into the harm caused by benefit deductions and want to hear from Universal Credit claimants whose experience of deductions can help them investigate possible avenues for reform.
Advisers, claimants or others with knowledge to share can register their interest in participating in the project using PLP’s online form:
PLP UC deductions research project
In light of the devastating effect funding cuts have had on our sector, NICVA has published a collection of help and advice that should be helpful to organisations facing difficult times.
As well as details of the relevant NICVA contacts, the page also includes links to active fundraising opportunities, information about managing finances and HR guidance.
Help and Advice for Organisations Facing Funding Cuts
Kate Osamor, Labour
Too ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether his Department uses (a) automated or (b) partially automated technologies to (i) investigate benefit claimants or claims and (ii) select or refer benefit claimant or claims for possible investigation.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative
You ask: whether his Department uses (a) automated or (b) partially automated technologies to (i) investigate benefit claimants or claims. The department does not use (a) automated or (b) partially automated technologies to (i) investigate benefit claimants or claims.
You further ask: whether his Department uses (a) automated or (b) partially automated technologies to select or refer benefit claimant or claims for possible investigation?
Yes, DWP’s Integrated Risk and Intelligence Service uses automated/partially automated technologies to identify claims that may warrant closer inspection (or may need additional consideration), assisting in the prevention and detection of fraud and error. It is right that we keep up with fraud in today’s digital age so that we can prevent, detect and deter those who would try to exploit the benefit system and more importantly, improve our support for genuine claimants. Any risk of fraud or error identified is reviewed by a trained member of staff and this is only one of a number of verification steps which will have to be cleared before an investigation is begun or before a claim is paid.
A decision to investigate a claimant is always made by a case handler who would take into account all relevant facts and circumstances.
Where automated technologies are used, DWP is always committed to processing data lawfully, proportionately, and ethically, with meaningful human input and safeguards for the protection of individuals.
We do not use automated technologies to replace human judgement to determine or deny a payment to a claimant. A human agent will always make final decisions and Equality and Data Protection Impact Assessments are carried out.
Kate Osamor, Labour
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how her Department defines benefit fraud.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative
The definition of fraud and error is set out in our publication on the Monetary Value of Fraud and Error in the benefits system. It defines benefit fraud as cases where the following three conditions apply:
- the conditions for receipt of benefit, or the rate of benefit in payment, are not being met;
- the claimant can reasonably be expected to be aware of the effect on entitlement;
- benefit stops or reduces as a result of the review.
The ‘background information’ section of our National Statistics publication provides further information.
Fraud & Error Estimates 2021-22
Kate Osamor, Labour
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many benefit claims are suspended by the Risk Review Team.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative
Information on the number of claimants convicted of fraud after having their claim suspended by the Department’s Risk Review Team is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost.
Since the beginning of December 2022, the Risk Review Team have reinstated 627 cases that were previously suspended.
The Risk Review Team currently have 108,362 cases suspended.
Chris Law, Scottish National Party
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what fiscal steps he is taking to (a) tackle the impact of the benefit cap on low-income families and (b) help prevent increases in child poverty.
Guy Opperman, Conservative
The Government is committed to reducing child poverty and supporting low-income families. We will spend around £276bn through the welfare system in Great Britain in 2023/24 including around £124bn on people of working age and their children.
The Secretary of State reviewed the benefit cap levels in November 2022 and decided they should be increased from April 2023. The Secretary of State has a statutory obligation to review the benefit cap levels at least once every five years.
With 1.05 million job vacancies across the UK, our focus remains firmly on supporting individuals, including parents, to move into, and progress in work, an approach which is based on clear evidence about the importance of employment - particularly where it is full-time - in substantially reducing the risks of child poverty and in improving long-term outcomes for families and children. The latest statistics show that in 2021/22 children living in workless households were around 5 times more likely to be in absolute poverty after housing costs than those where all adults work.
To support those who are in work, from 1 April 2023, the National Living Wage (NLW) increased by 9.7% to £10.42 an hour for workers aged 23 and over - the largest ever cash increase for the NLW.
At the Spring Budget, the Chancellor announced an ambitious package of measures designed to support people wherever they live in the UK to enter work, increase their working hours and extend their working lives.
The Government recognises that high childcare costs can affect parents’ decisions to take up paid work or increase their working hours which is why, from 28 June, the changes to the Universal Credit (UC) childcare element announced in Spring Budget 2023 will provide generous additional financial support to parents moving into paid work and/or increasing their working hours.
This government understands the pressures people are facing with the cost of living which is why we are providing total support of over £94bn over 2022-23 and 2023-24 to help households and individuals with the rising bills.
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, with reference to the Health and Disability White Paper, CP 807, published on 15 March 2023, whether he plans to introduce a Mandatory Reconsideration and appeal route against decisions made about a claimant’s ability to undertake work or work-related activity once the Work Capability Assessment has been replaced.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative
Our new approach will provide more personalised levels of conditionality and employment support, with the aim of helping people to reach their potential and live a more independent life. This more tailored approach will allow work coaches to build a relationship with an individual and determine what, if any, work-related activities an individual can participate in.
These activities could start from voluntary and dial up to mandatory where appropriate, with requirements added at a pace that is appropriate for the individual.
We will take time to carefully consider how best to implement these changes and take a test and learn approach with the new system before introducing it, to ensure it provides the taxpayer with value for money and is accessible and effective in delivering for our service users.
We will continue to listen to, and to work closely with, disabled people, people with health conditions and many other partners, on how to best deliver these reforms.
Dame Nia Griffith, Labour
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether the inflation-based rise to Universal Credit was paid to claimants in their April benefit payment.
Guy Opperman, Conservative
Increases in Universal Credit come into force from the start of the first assessment period beginning on or after the first Monday of the tax year.
As Universal Credit is a calendar monthly assessed benefit that is paid monthly in arrears, a claimant will receive their uprated benefit award in payments due from 16 May.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, with reference to paragraph 2.7(m) of the minutes of the Social Security Advisory Committee meeting held on 25 January 2023, what assessment he has made of the adequacy of advice provided to the committee on the potential impact of interest rates on changes to the Support for Mortgage Interest scheme.
Mims Davies, Conservative
The advice given to the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) was, and remains, accurate.
The rate of SMI we pay is based on the Bank of England published average rate and recently increased from 2.09% to 2.65% in May 2023. Any further changes to the interest rate will occur when the Bank of England average mortgage rate differs by 0.5 percentage points or more from the rate in payment.
As we use an average figure, some people will receive more than the amount of interest charged on their mortgage and others less. We have broad agreement with the lending industry that the amount we pay in SMI will be sufficient to avert any threat of repossession, even where that is less than the borrowers contracted liability.
Stephen Farry, Alliance
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what assessment he has made of the adequacy of the Support for Mortgage Interest scheme, in the context of the increase in the bank rate in June 2023.
Mims Davies, Conservative
No assessment has been made of the adequacy of Support for Mortgage interest (SMI) since interest rates have risen, although the Department continues to monitor the impact of our policies on an on-going basis.
SMI is intended to provide reasonable support by making a contribution towards mortgage interest to protect claimants against the threat of repossession. The rate of SMI we pay is based on the Bank of England average and recently increased from 2.09% to 2.65% in May 2023. Any further changes will occur when the average differs by 0.5 percentage points or more.
To support low-income mortgage borrowers with rising interest rates, from April 2023, we extended the support SMI provides by allowing those on Universal Credit to apply for a loan after three months, instead of nine. We also abolished the rule which prevented Universal Credit claimants from receiving support if they were in work.
Catherine West, Labour
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what steps he is taking to ensure that (a) risk and (b) equality assessments are made of the use of Artificial Intelligence to assess Universal Credit applications.
Mims Davies, Conservative
Where Artificial Intelligence is used to assist its activities in prevention and detection of fraud within UC applications, DWP always ensures appropriate safeguards are in place for the proportionate, ethical, and legal use of data with internal monitoring protocols adhered to.
DWP will not use AI to replace human judgement to determine or deny a payment to a claimant; a human agent will always make final decisions, safeguarding the protection of individuals. Where appropriate Equality and Data Protection Impact Assessments have been carried out.
Both the NAO and ICO, who have looked at this issue recently, found no areas of immediate concern with our use of AI. DWP’s Personal Information Charter explains how and why we use personal information and citizen’s rights and responsibilities.