'THINK' December 2021 Edition

The Advice NI Policy & Information team is delighted to publish this December 2021 edition of our policy eNewsletter ‘THINK’.

As usual, we have all the latest legislative updates, statutory rules, announcements and briefings.
There are some excellent pieces of good news to round up the year

  • Discretionary Support independent review panel report welcomed by Communities Minister Hargey;
  • Process has begun in the Assembly to extend the welfare mitigations legislation;
  • Process has begun in the Assembly to remove the “6 months” criterion from the social security special rules for terminal illness, in favour of a “12 months” model;
  • ‘Information Updates’ section with link to a new “Welfare Benefits Handbook of References”;
  • Minister pays tribute to the “excellent work”, “vital role” and “critical role” of the independent advice network;

Please do email the Team if you would like to find out more about our work or would like to discuss or priorities for the year ahead.

Please email us at policy@adviceni.net to discuss any policy matters, content, feedback or comments. We'd be happy to share ideas on areas to focus on, content suggestions and other ways of getting involved.

If you want to get 'THINK' delivered straight to your inbox, sign up with this link.

Best regards,
The Advice NI Policy & Information Team

Latest News

Increased Wages and Protections for Voluntary/Community Sector

Minister Hargey of DfC stated:

“The Voluntary and Community Sector organisations have served their communities with professionalism and have shown both innovation and a readiness to adapt services to meet the new challenges that have arisen.

The value of the sector has not always been recognised through the level of financial support made available. I have listened to the sector’s concerns about their ability to improve terms and conditions for their employees, which has been constrained by funding approaches.

I have changed this. This significant funding package will enable those organisations directly funded by my Department to improve the terms and conditions for their employees, something that is long overdue.

The Voluntary and Community sector is critical. The changes I have introduced will ensure Real Living Wage rates, increased funding to support salary uplifts, increased employer pension contributions and funding for sick pay for VCS posts directly funded by this department.”

Communities NI: Hargey announces increased wages and protections for workers in the Voluntary and Community Sector


Minister Hargey Welcomes Discretionary Support Scheme Panel Report

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey welcomed the work of a Discretionary Support independent review panel at a formal handover of its report today.

The panel of experts is chaired by Professor Gráinne McKeever of Ulster University. Professor McKeever was joined on the panel by academics, grassroots community leaders and advice workers, including Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick and Dr Mark Simpson, also of University of Ulster; Gerry McConville of the Falls Community Council; Jonny Currie of the Trussell Trust, Ursula O’Hare of Law Centre NI and Kevin Higgins of Advice NI. Minister Hargey stated:

“I will consider the panel’s detailed recommendations and will continue work on improving and developing timely and targeted support for those who find themselves in extreme situations. The Discretionary Support independent review panel was given the scope to look at all aspects of the current programme and to provide any recommendations needed to make it better.”

Chair of the independent review panel, Professor Gráinne McKeever said,

"It was an honour to chair this important and independent review into Discretionary Support, which can provide a lifeline for those in crisis. Northern Ireland developed a unique system to replace the Social Fund and our Review examines how well this is working for those who need to access it and provides recommendations on how to improve it."

Communities NI: Minister Hargey Welcomes Panel’s Report Into Discretionary Support Scheme


Progression of Terminal Illness legislation

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has welcomed the progression of her plans to extend terminal illness provision in social security benefits following Executive agreement to introduce the draft Bill into the Assembly.

The Minister, whose proposals extends the current six months criterion to twelve months, has sought accelerated passage of the legislation to ensure the changes can be made in this mandate. The extension of terminal illness provision will apply to all of the five social security benefits to which the special rules apply.

The change will open up the scope of the current system meaning more terminally ill people will qualify for fast track support in social security benefits, without the need to apply under the normal application and assessment route.

In an Explanatory and Financial memorandum, DfC confirms that the proposed amendments will apply for the purposes of fast track access to AA, DLA, PIP, ESA and UC.

The Social Security (Terminal Illness) Bill passed its Second Stage in the Assembly, Tuesday 7 December:

Communities NI: Hargey welcomes progression of enhancements to fast tracking financial support for those diagnosed with terminal illness
NI Assembly: Social Security (Terminal Illness) Bill - EFM - As Introduced


Hansard Report of the Committee Session on Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill: Advice NI

The Advice NI Policy team provided both written and oral evidence, relating to the proposed Betting Amendment Bill.  Advice NI believes any legislation that protects and supports the vulnerable and under 18s is crucial to tackle gambling addiction.

NI Assembly: Official Report

NI Assembly: Committee for Communities Meeting


Challenges Facing Northern Ireland’s Childcare Sector

Employers For Childcare published the most recent Northern Ireland Childcare Survey. EFC warn that Northern Ireland could be facing into a childcare crisis which would have a severe impact on parents’ ability to work.

Employers for Childcare: Northern Ireland Childcare Survey 2021


Universal Credit Amendment

New regulations have been issued in relation to the exception to the universal credit basic condition 'not to be receiving education' for those in receipt of a disability benefit in Northern Ireland.

In force from 15 December 2021, the Universal Credit (Exceptions to the Requirement not to be receiving Education) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.303/2021) substitute a new paragraph 1(b) in regulation 14 of the Universal Credit Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016.

The new paragraph 1(b) provides that a person entitled to attendance allowance, disability living allowance, child disability payment or personal independence payment will be entitled to universal credit if they are determined to have a limited capability for work (LCW) or limited capability for work and work-related activity (LCWRA) on a date before they started receiving education or they are treated as having LCW or LCWRA before that date.

Legislation: The Universal Credit Regulations 2021


Personal Independence Payment Statistics

June 2016 to 31st August 2021. This quarterly summary contains statistics on PIP registrations, clearances, awards, numbers of claims in payment and mandatory reconsiderations since June 2016. Points to note:

  • 43% of awards have Psychiatric Disorders as the main disabling condition
  • 39% of claims in payment are awarded the enhanced rate for both components
  • By the end of August 2021, there were 266,930 PIP claims registered. Of these, 255,580 had been cleared including 2,980 (1%) ‘Special Rules for the Terminally Ill' (SRTI) claims

Communities NI: Personal Independence Payment Statistics - August 2021


Benefits Statistics

Professional Services Unit provides statistics on social security benefits [Aug 21]:

Communities NI: Benefits Statistics


Benefit Cap

PSU have compiled statistics on the following:

  • Number of capped households
  • Where capped households are located (by both local government district and assembly area)
  • Family structure of capped households (number of lone parents etc)
  • Benefits claimed by capped households.
  • Financial impact of being capped
  • Moving off the Benefit Cap – examining households who are no longer capped.

Communities NI: Benefit Cap Statistics 


Universal Credit

Statistics have been compiled on the following:

  • The number of claimants and households on Universal Credit
  • Family type of households on Universal Credit
  • Average payments households receive
  • Statistics on housing support
  • Where Universal Credit claimants are located
  • The work conditionality regime that claimants belong to

Communities NI: Universal Credit Statistics


HIA Compensation

New regulations have been issued in relation to the treatment of payments made from historical institutional child abuse compensation scheme, when calculating means-tested benefits.

In force from 1 January 2021, the Social Security (Income and Capital Disregards) (Amendment) Regulations 2021 (SI.No.1405/2021) amend regulations relating to the calculation of IS, JSA, SPC, HB, ESA and UC: to provide for the disregard of certain compensation payments as income and capital when calculating those benefits.

In particular, the regulations apply to payments made under any that compensate victims of historical institutional child abuse in Northern Ireland.

Legislation: The Social Security Regulations 2021


Budget Consultation

The Budget provides the Executive with an opportunity to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland by allocating resources to high priority areas in order to improve outcomes for citizens.

The NI Executive has now agreed to consult on a Draft Budget for 2022-25.

Finance NI: Budget Consultation

Advice NI Information Officer Updates

Welfare Benefits Handbook of References

We produced a handbook of references for welfare benefits earlier this year that was piloted during the summer. The handbook is a collection of links to relevant online information sources relating to welfare benefits, which should assist advisers in answering the majority of questions clients will have. This includes links to relevant Departmental guidance and applicable legislation.
This document is now available to everyone at the Advice NI website: Click here
It is hoped that this document will be a helpful resource to all advisers dealing with welfare benefits queries, and you are encouraged to send any suggestions you might have to guide improvement to the Advice NI Information Officer.


Pre-Settled Status and Access to Benefits

With the end of the transition period now a seemingly distant memory, we are beginning to get a clearer sense of the issues facing EU nationals remaining in the UK. One particular area of concern is access to benefits for those with pre-settled status.
Some of you will have seen the recent news of the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Fratila case, which appears for now to close off hope for now of an automatic right to reside for benefit claimants with pre-settled status. You can access advice from CPAG about how to approach equivalent cases at their website.
With regard to those EU nationals and family members that do not have status under the EU Settlement Scheme, in many cases due to the Home Office still not having made a decision on their application, the Department has issued updated guidance for decision makers on how to handle claims:
ADM Memo 19/21
The Policy and Information team is also working closely with colleagues at Community Advice Armagh on a number of cases where clients with pre-settled status have been refused access to Universal Credit and are encountering difficulties establishing the proper reasons for the refusal of their claims. We hope soon to be able to provide a detailed briefing on this important issue, cutting through what is a complex area of legislation, and would encourage any advisers with similar cases to get in touch with the Advice NI Information Officer.


Medical Assessments

The Policy and Information team is continuing to hear from colleagues across the network about issues with the application of medical assessment criteria for PIP, ESA and UC. We are grateful to colleagues for raising these issues and will continue to raise these matters with the appropriate authorities within the Department wherever we can.
In addition, the team felt it was worth noting that there are some really useful information resources provided by rightsnet in this area: pipinfo and wcainfo. Whilst the sites are written from a GB perspective, the content of the relevant legislation is equivalent to that which applies here in NI. We are working on a circular outlining the relevant NI case law, but would encourage advisers to make use of the Welfare Benefits Handbook of References to locate NI-specific information and legislation.


Universal Credit: Changes to the Taper Rate and Work Allowance

Hopefully many of you were able to attend Advice NI’s dedicated training course on the changes to Universal Credit arising from the Autumn Budget (the training also covered some of the other recent changes to income calculations covered in past issues of THINK). Those changes were enshrined in regulations by the Universal Credit (Work Allowance and Taper) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021.
The Department has also published a memo for decision makers summarising the basics, which you can read here.

NI Assembly Questions

Advice NI

AQO 2831/17-22 Ms Linda Dillon (SF - Mid Ulster)

To ask the Minister for Communities, following her recent visit to Advice NI, for her assessment of the support provided by the independent advocate sector.

I have been on the ground in recent weeks to witness the excellent work that Advice NI has been delivering in relation to addressing problem debt and wider Advice services here.

The Independent Advice Sector plays a vital role in helping people to access their rights and entitlement to many government benefits, services and supports. I believe that access to independent, community based advice is a right for everyone, especially those in our communities who are most in need of government support.

During the pandemic, advice organisations have been more critical than ever in providing emergency responses to those struggling financially, physically and emotionally; with the Advice NI providing the Covid 19 Community Helpline which handled over 40,000 calls.

My assessment is that the Advice Sector is doing a very good job, having dealt with over 500,000 inquiries last year; and it will continue to play a critical role in assisting community recovery in the time ahead.


Mitigations Independent Advisory Panel

AQO 2832/17-22 Ms Jemma Dolan (SF - Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

To ask the Minister for Communities for an update on the Independent Advisory Panel established to review welfare mitigation measures.

I am pleased to advise that the independent panel have started their work on the review of welfare mitigation measures. The unique mitigation package of financial support has protected thousands of people here from cuts to the social security system. The mitigations review is an important opportunity to build on what has been achieved and to help prevent more people from falling into poverty.

I expect the independent panel to consider a wide range of possible new mitigation measures, which will include the two child policy, financial support for people making a new claim to Universal Credit and for carers. As part of the review the panel will also consider the specific needs of children, people with a disability and the gender-related impact of welfare reforms.

It is important that this review is not completed in isolation and I am pleased to note that the panel has already commenced engagement with a range of stakeholders who represent people who use the social security system.

I expect the panel will make their recommendations for an enhanced mitigation package by February 2022.


Historical Institutional Abuse

AQO 2720/17-22 Ms Sinead McLaughlin (SDLP - Foyle)

To ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister, further to the recommendations of the Report of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, why victims have not received an apology.

Victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse have our full support, and we are determined they will receive the acknowledgement, support and redress they deserve. We remain committed to the full implementation of the Hart Report, and are continuing to work towards a timely apology being given to victims and survivors.

Our officials undertook a number of engagements with representative groups during September and October, and are also in regular contact with the Commissioner for Survivors of Childhood Institutional Abuse. In the wake of these engagements, we are giving consideration to the format and content of the apology, including how the Review of the HIA Redress Process might impact the delivery of the apology.

Our priority remains approaching an apology with care and sensitivity, and rooting it in the experience of HIA victims and survivors.


Magdalene Laundries

AQO 2719/17-22 Mr Colin McGrath (SDLP - South Down)    

To ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister, further to the publication of the Truth Recovery Design Panel's report on Mother and Baby Institutions, Magdalene Laundries and Workhouses in Northern Ireland, whether they have accepted the recommendation for an independent investigation.

The Executive has agreed all the recommendations contained in the Truth Recovery Design Panel’s report, which the deputy First Minister outlined in a statement to the Assembly on Monday 15 November. This work is a priority for the Executive and will be taken forward at pace.


Energy Support

AQW 26098/17-22 Mr Maolíosa McHugh (SF - West Tyrone)    

To ask the Minister for Communities, given the increasing home heating fuel costs, what additional support measures or schemes she will bring forward to alleviate the hardship for many low income families over the winter period.

The global fuel crisis is undoubtedly having major impact on people, particularly on those who are already struggling financially.

My Department continues to offer a range of support to assist families that are struggling to keep up with the soaring energy cost. This includes schemes to help improve the energy efficiency of homes, as well as Cold Weather and Winter Fuel payments and Discretionary Support.

The Winter Fuel payment is a payment of between £100 and £300 to help with heating costs. This year’s payments have already started and will continue through to January. To date 289,762 payments have already been issued to people here, with a total value of £51.6 million.

My officials have also been engaging with the Utility Regulator, the Consumer Council and other stakeholders to scope out the options that are available to provide support to people who may struggle to heat their home or pay their energy bills over the coming months. This includes developing an Energy Payment Support Scheme to provide a one-off payment to help individuals in receipt of specified benefits with energy costs this winter.

Such a scheme will require the support of Executive colleagues to ensure there is sufficient funding to deliver an appropriate level of support through this scheme. It will also require new legislation, as well as the support of other key stakeholders for the scheme to be delivered.

I have written to the Minister of Finance to request that £13.8 million of Barnett consequential funding for supporting households over the winter is allocated to my Department to progress an Energy Payment Support Scheme.

In order to provide necessary support to families’ who will need it over the winter period an even greater amount will be required, and I welcome the Finance Minister’s request to Executive colleagues seeking additional funding to support this Scheme.


Refugee Integration Strategy

AQO 2715/17-22 Mr John Blair (APNI - South Antrim)

To ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister whether the Refugee Integration Strategy will include refugees from global south countries who are facing the greatest risk due to the climate emergency.

The Refugee Integration Strategy will set out how the Executive will take co-ordinated action to support refugees and asylum seekers when they arrive here, regardless of where they have arrived from.

Immigration policy, including the policy on asylum seekers and refugees, is not devolved and remains the responsibility of the Home Office. However, as we have demonstrated through our support for Syrian Refugees and our commitments in respect of resettling Afghan Refugees, the Executive will continue to play its part in responding to humanitarian crises.


£500 Special Recognition Payment

AQW 26757/17-22 Mrs Pam Cameron (DUP - South Antrim)

To ask the Minister of Health for an update on roll-out of the £500 Special Recognition Payment to the independent sector.

Phase 1 of the process is considering claims from employers for staff that are currently employed. As at 1st December, 335 claims have been received from care home and domiciliary care providers which are progressing through the various stages of the pre-payment checks. This figure includes 161 suppliers that have submitted the required documentation which have been processed by BSO with a total payment value of just over £4.6m and includes 7985 individuals.

Due to the transient nature of staff employed in the independent sector, some people may have moved to another employer for any number of reasons, including a job in a new sector. The mechanism for administering the special recognition payments in these circumstances is currently being considered and will be included in the second phase of this process.

Details of Phase 2 will be communicated shortly to all Independent Sector care home and domiciliary care providers registered with the RQIA.

A revised FAQ on the special recognition payment has been published on the Department’s website and is available via this link.


Social Housing

AQO 2835/17-22 Mr Gerry Kelly (SF - North Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities what measures she is taking to ensure that social and affordable housing is provided where it is needed.

I am fully committed to providing more social and affordable housing.

Last year, 2,403 social housing units were started, the highest figure in ten years. During the same period, 1,318 social housing homes were completed – exceeding the target of 1,200.

With the aim of continuing to build more social housing for people and families in need, I have secured an increased budget for new social housing. I have made £162 million available this financial year. That is an increase of £26 million on last year’s budget.

I am considering what policy changes are needed to increase the capacity of the Social Housing Development Programme. I will ensure that areas of acute housing need are prioritised. I am working with Housing Associations and have been encouraging them to identify land that is available for social housing. I am also conducting, on behalf of the Executive, an exercise to identify surplus public land that could be used for social housing developments.

The Housing Executive is also working with Councils to formulate affordable housing policies within Local Development Plans (LDP) that can identify land for affordable housing (social and intermediate housing) development.

This supports a planning policy requirement that a proportion of residential development is developed as affordable housing with LDP Plan Strategy Policies, in areas of housing need. To date six Councils’ Development Plans now include draft affordable housing policies that, once adopted, will facilitate the delivery of housing.

Parliamentary Questions

UC Waivers due to Official Error

Alan Brown, Scottish National Party UIN 75018

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many waivers have been granted for universal credit overpayments with the classification of official error in financial year 2021-22 to date.

David Rutley, Conservative

The table below details the number of waivers of Universal Credit Official Error overpayments granted in the requested years:
Number of UC Official Error overpayments where recovery was waived
Financial Year 2020/2021: 9
Financial Year 2021/2022: 5
Please note that this data is taken from operational data systems, and is not intended for publication. Therefore, the data itself is not quality assured to the standard of published Official Statistics and National Statistics.

DWP pays welfare benefits to around 23 million people and is committed to ensuring that the right people are paid the right amount of Universal Credit. The vast majority of benefit expenditure (more than £200bn across all benefits last financial year) is paid correctly, with front line staff working hard to prevent overpayments from occurring.

Where an overpayment does occur, the Department has a responsibility to taxpayers to recover the money without creating undue financial hardship. Universal Credit overpayments are recoverable, irrespective of how they arose. Where recovery is made by deduction from Universal Credit, there is a limit placed on the overall amount that can be deducted. Formerly 40% of the Universal Credit Standard Allowance, this was reduced to 30% in October 2019 and again to 25% in April 2021.

A waiver can only be granted where the recovery of the overpayment is causing substantial medical and/or financial hardship, and where clear evidence of this can be provided.

However, any claimants struggling with the proposed rate of deductions are encouraged to contact DWP Debt Management to discuss affordability, so that a lower repayment rate can be negotiated as appropriate.


Universal Credit

Jessica Morden, Labour UIN 88677

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many and what proportion of working universal credit recipients are paid by their employers on a non-monthly cycle.

David Rutley, Conservative

The proportion of working Universal Credit recipients who are paid in a non-monthly-cycles is 37.0%.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ (HMRC) Real Time Earnings (RTE) data has been used to identify pay frequency and number of employers. This does not include self-reported or self-employed earnings.
Pay frequency as reported by the employer has been used to determine pay cycle.

Category 'Non-Monthly Pay Cycle' includes those claimants paid weekly, fortnightly, four-weekly or another non-monthly pay cycle.


EEA Nationals: Late Application

Kate Osamor, Labour UIN 47029

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when her Department plans to stop the universal credit and legacy benefit claims of individuals who qualify for EU Settled Status but have not yet applied for that scheme.

Chloe Smith, Conservative

The Government has made clear its commitment to safeguard the rights of EEA nationals, and their family members, living in the UK prior to the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. They have done this though the introduction of the EU Settlement Scheme (EUSS).

The scheme opened to the public on 30 March 2019 and the deadline for the scheme for those resident in the UK by the end of the transition period was 30 June 2021. Every day thousands of people are being given status through the EUSS and to date the Home Office have received more than 6 million applications.

There is scope to make a late application based on reasonable grounds for missing the deadline. The Home Office have also released guidance for late applications and reiterated their general approach under the EUSS which is to look to grant status, rather than looking for reasons to refuse. Those covered by the Withdrawal Agreement who submit a late application to the EUSS will also be able to access benefits and services, if they are eligible, from the point their application is validated, and identity has been verified.

From 1 July 2021, the Department has continued to work in collaboration with the HO and HMRC to undertake further engagement activities and give those without status further opportunity to apply to the EUSS. Claimants that fail to make a late application will not have entitlement to benefits unless, and until, they apply. The Department is however taking all reasonable steps to engage claimants and provide them with multiple opportunities to apply before taking compliance action. This includes engaging with relevant customers through scheduled face to face and telephony contact, and Universal Credit (UC) journal prompts. The Department’s visiting service is also available for those customers who are identified as the most vulnerable.