'THINK' February 2022 Edition

The Advice NI Policy & Information team is delighted to publish this February 2022 edition of our policy eNewsletter ‘THINK’.

As usual, we have all the latest legislative updates, statutory rules, announcements and briefings.

But surely the most important section is regarding our hard fought for and hard won welfare mitigations. After a campaign that has ran for over 3 years commencing with the Advice NI AGM in November 2018, where Advice NI, Law Centre NI and Housing Rights launched ‘Welfare Reform: Mitigations on a Cliffedge’, we finally have mitigations extended, the end date removed for bedroom tax mitigations and retained our vital welfare reform independent advice services. Our thoughts turn to the Herculean efforts of many individuals and organisations – for myself, my thoughts turn to Minister Hargey for all her efforts in pushing the issue through the Executive and to Professor Eileen Evason who chaired the original Working Group back in 2016 and has continued to champion the need for the mitigations to protect the most vulnerable. A job well done!!!

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

Hargey Closes ‘Bedroom Tax’ and Benefit Cap Loopholes in Welfare Mitigation Schemes

Legislation enacted by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, has been passed by the Assembly. The changes will allow people who previously lost their mitigation payments to requalify if they are impacted by the bedroom tax. Minister Hargey said: “By closing loopholes, I have ensured that around 260 families will receive average payments of £480 a year regardless of whether or not they have moved home and continue to under-occupy. Changes to the benefit cap will also extend protection for families with children by simplifying the qualifying conditions. Many families who are currently not fully protected will see their payments increase with an estimated 640 households - that are currently losing an average of £49 per week - becoming eligible for mitigation payments. Too many people have been unfairly penalised under the old rules. It is not acceptable to stop payments when someone decides to move home or to deny financial support to an increasing number of families. I am determined to protect those most in need in our society and the expansion of the welfare mitigation package is an important step.”

Mitigation schemes were introduced in 2016 for a four year period ending on 31 March 2020. An extension for most of the schemes to 31 March 2025 was approved by the Assembly on 31 January 2022. Agreed across the House without division (agreed by all) to scrap the bedroom tax mitigation end date of 2025 [2025 remains for the other mitigations].

Eligible households will not need to claim the mitigation payments. The Department will identify all people eligible under the new rules and will issue payments automatically. This process is expected to take around six weeks to complete.

Please note: "The amendments will not be retrospective. That means that changes to an entitlement will apply from the day after the legislation comes into effect."


Mitigations Extension

In force from 1 February 2022, the Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 (SR.No.25/2022) amend SR.No.178/2016, SR.No.250/2016, SR.No.253/2016 and SR.No.254/2016 (the 2016 Regulations) to reinstate welfare supplementary payments for people who are affected by the benefit cap, the time-limiting of contributory ESA, the loss or reduction of DLA on transition to PIP; and any associated loss or reduction of disability-related premiums and carer payments.



Mitigations Bill

The Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill passed further Consideration Stage, 23 February 22.

Miss Reilly asked the Minister for Communities to set out the importance of the Assembly’s decision to extend welfare mitigations. (AQT 2043/17-22)

Minister Hargey: It is good that the mitigations are starting to progress. We passed the regulations to extend the existing mitigations, and they are starting to go through at the moment and have been laid. We are also working through the legislation. We had Consideration Stage last week and discussed the bedroom tax, and I am thankful that we got the support of the full House after an amendment on the bedroom tax and reached the decision not to have an end date in the legislation. The legislation will go to Further Consideration Stage, and the aim is to have all this completed before the end of the mandate. That includes closing the loopholes in the bedroom tax mitigation, which will see protection for hundreds of families who have been impacted on. Indeed, with the bedroom tax itself, over 36,000 households will see the benefit of the mitigation and protection continuing.

There is a lot of work to be done before the end of this mandate, not just on legislation but on new policies that will be coming forward. We already spoke about the anti-poverty strategy, and there is the LGBTQI strategy, a disability strategy and a gender strategy. Those strategies will include proposals that would have a real impact on many of our citizens out there in our communities. Unfortunately, we have instability and no Executive, and any new policies, decisions or funding going forward cannot be dealt with without that Executive functioning.



Mitigations statement by Minister, 1 March 22

Ms Hargey: I am pleased to be able to move the Final Stage of the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill today.  I also take this opportunity to thank all the organisations and groups — the Cliff Edge Coalition, Advice NI, the Human Rights Commission and others — that worked with me to get the Bill to this point. I welcome the positive responses to the Bill from organisations that were at the forefront of the campaign to extend welfare mitigation payments and ensure that we did not introduce a new cliff edge for people who have been dependent on those payments. I intended to do that from the outset when I took up office.

I will summarise the main purpose of the legislation. Once enacted, this Bill will remove the end date for qualifying for welfare mitigation payments for those impacted by the bedroom tax policy…The Bill will also require my Department to monitor and report on the operation of welfare mitigation schemes, with a report to be laid in the Assembly no later than 31 March 2025. I am committed to keeping welfare mitigations under review to ensure that they meet the continuing need and support the people who need them most. The report will also provide a basis for a future assessment of that continuing need and of whether we need additional welfare mitigation schemes. That will include, in particular, a view to be taken on the provision of statutory extension beyond 31 March 2025 for mitigation schemes other than the bedroom tax.

The Bill represents a vitally important step to deliver meaningful change before the end of this mandate and provide long-term assurances to around 37,000 households that they will not be penalised by the bedroom tax. Subject to the Assembly's passing the Bill today and its receiving Royal Assent in the coming weeks, it will come into operation the next day. We will then be able to say, hopefully as a united House, that we have binned the bedroom tax. I commend the Bill to the Assembly.

NI Assembly: Official Report


Energy Payment Support Scheme

Minister Hargey stated:

‘I first wrote to the Finance Minister about the energy crisis on 9 November 2021 asking for the immediate consideration of funding for an energy payment support scheme. The Finance Minister quickly wrote to Executive colleagues asking them to identify underspends, in advance of the January monitoring round, which could increase the resource available for the scheme. On receipt of responses, the Finance Minister wrote, again, to Executive colleagues to seek agreement for the immediate allocation of the £13·8 million Barnett consequential funding and, given the scale of the crisis, for additional funding to be allocated for this scheme. Despite that urgent request from the Finance Minister and attempts by me to secure the funding last year, it was blocked from getting on to the Executive agenda to be discussed or agreed. I eventually secured support from the Executive on 13 January 2022 to deliver a £55 million payment support scheme to provide vital support to around 280,000 individuals across a wide range of benefits.

The agreed scheme is targeted at individuals on low incomes who are in receipt of means-tested benefits administered by my Department, and it will provide a one-off £200 payment to help with their energy costs. I asked my officials to explore whether tax credits could also be included within the eligibility criteria for the scheme. My officials engaged with Revenue and Customs, which has responsibility for administering tax credits. Obviously, those are reserved matters. Revenue and Customs stated that it did not have the legal powers to make a payment, and a workable solution could not be found.

Despite the delay in securing Executive approval for the scheme until 13 January 2022, a delay that was caused by not allowing it on to the agenda for decision in November of the previous year, I asked for payments to be made as quickly and practically as possible. I can now announce that the payment date has been brought forward as much as possible, and we will see payments begin to reach people’s bank accounts next week, on 10 March 2022, with most of the payments being paid on 10 and 11 March.

My Department continues to offer a range of supports, including such schemes as the affordable warmth scheme and the boiler replacement scheme, to help improve the energy efficiency of homes, as well as cold weather payments, discretionary support and the winter fuel payment, which has already paid out £51 million this winter to more than 290,000 older people.

My Department also provided a £2 million contribution to an emergency fuel payment scheme operated by Bryson Care to deliver targeted support to families who present as being in fuel crisis or who have a temporary inability to meet their fuel costs.

Ms Armstrong (The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Communities): Minister, your announcement is very welcome. We had an idea that the payment was going to be made to people in mid-March, and you have delivered on that. With the Bryson scheme, oil companies, in particular, are charging beneficiaries £20 on top of their fuel costs just for a delivery. That will also happen with the energy payment scheme. Can you do anything to address that misuse of public money?

Ms Hargey: We have tried to engage. The Department has had regular meetings with the Utility Regulator and the Consumer Council about trying to have an engagement with energy companies about their social responsibilities. Energy companies contributed to the administrative costs of the Bryson scheme, which meant that the £2 million that came from the Department went directly to households and people who needed it. I can continually raise the delivery charge with the Utility Regulator. All that money should be spent on meeting people's needs in relation to fuel prices. I will take that away and come back to you.

Mr Frew: Given the moves that have been made in GB, particularly in England, to provide rate relief so that more people can be caught in schemes and given support, has the Minister had any discussions with the Finance Minister about giving rate relief for energy costs?

Ms Hargey: We looked at a number of other schemes. The energy support scheme that was brought forward last November was based on the people on the lowest incomes: those in receipt of means-tested benefits. The difficulty with extending the scheme now is having the money to do it and having an Executive to approve any change to the scheme. Luckily, I was able to get the scheme signed off before the Executive fell — in fact, at the last minute, on the day that the Assembly came down. There are limitations on what else we can do without a functioning Executive. The scheme, as it stands, is for those who are in receipt of the means-tested benefits that have been listed. There is other help through the Bryson Care scheme. That is still in operation and will be in operation until the end of this month. The resource is still there. There were issues at the start of that scheme, but it has started to become embedded, and there is a 24-hour turnaround between people approaching it and receiving direct assistance. If anyone is in financial crisis or at the point of being disconnected, I encourage them to contact Bryson Care.

NI Assembly: Official Report


Communities Minister welcomes completion of Charities Bill

The Charities Bill, introduced to the Assembly by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, passed its final stage on Tuesday 8 February 2022. The Minister introduced this Bill in direct response to concerns raised by the charity sector. Minister Hargey said:

“I am delighted that this important piece of legislation has passed Final Stage. The Bill will bring real benefits to over 6,500 charities and those that rely on them.” In summary the Bill will:

  • Make previous decisions taken by staff of the Charity Commission (the Commission) lawful except where to do so could impinge on the rights of individuals under the European Convention on Human Rights;
  • Provide refreshed appeal rights for decisions made lawful by the Bill, extending the timeframe for those appeals from 42 days to 91 days from the date of Royal Assent;
  • Ensure that charities do not have to account for past periods where they have not continued to do so voluntarily, but will instead be required to report on their first full financial year from 1 April 2022;
  • Provide that some decisions required of the Commission may be delegated to Commission staff provided they are set out in a Scheme of Delegation which will be subject to public consultation, whilst stipulating that certain decisions will never be taken by staff; and
  • Provide a power for the introduction of a registration threshold below which charities would not be required to register with the Commission or be subject to annual reporting requirements, via subordinate legislation at some future point if deemed appropriate.

Communities Minister welcomes completion of Charities Bill


Waiver of UC Overpayment: How to Apply

In exceptional circumstances the Department for Communities has the discretion to waive recovery of all or part of an overpayment. Asking for a waiver should normally be made in writing. There is no right of appeal against a decision not to apply discretion or if you disagree with the discretion applied.

Where a waiver is asked for because of ill health, this would only be considered where there is evidence available that recovery of the overpayment is damaging to the health and/or welfare of you or your family. And, where it can be clearly proven that your circumstances will only improve by waiver of the overpayment.

Evidence to support this should be in the form of a letter from a professional such as a GP, consultant, psychiatric nurse or support worker. This evidence must be specific as to the effect the recovery is having on your health and must be the opinion of the professional writing the letter.

Where the waiver is asked for on the grounds of severe financial hardship, you would need to show that this has been long standing and not expected to improve in the near future. The hardship must be of such severity that it is not reasonable to expect you to make even reduced payments.

Full details of your income and expenditure, your partner, your dependants and any other members of the household would need to be given along with evidence to prove this. This includes letters from creditors pursuing debts or arrears of rent/mortgage.

NI Direct: Overpayments of Benefits and Financial Support


See Petition:

Restore confidence in the benefit overpayment recovery waiver (write-off) system

The Secretary of State needs to restore confidence in the overpayment recovery waiver system by ensuring everyone affected by overpayments are made aware of the existence of waivers and how to seek one, and monitoring decision making to ensure that waivers are applied correctly.



Energy Price Hikes

Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, Advice NI:

‘The seemingly never-ending round of energy price increases continue, with a related disproportionate impact on low income households. Whilst there are local measures in place, for example the £2m Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme for those in emergency need via the Bryson Charitable Group website, and the £55m Energy Payment Support Scheme which will provide £200 to people on means tested benefits; given the scale of the energy price crisis and the wider cost of living crisis, much more must be done to help struggling families.’

Newsletter: Gas Price Hike and Other Energy Pressures


Draft Budget: Update

Finance Minister Conor Murphy updated the Assembly on the Draft Budget and additional funding. Minister Murphy set out legal advice he has received on how budgetary matters could be progressed in the absence of an Executive:

"I have now received detailed legal advice and unfortunately it is not possible to deliver a Budget in the absence of an Executive…Since the Draft Budget went out to consultation an additional £300 million has become available for 2022-23. Regrettably, it is not possible to allocate this £300 million to areas such as skills, housing and policing until such times as an Executive is re-established. However I do intend to proceed to freeze both domestic and non-domestic regional rates next year, which will help with the rising costs faced by families and businesses. Unfortunately I cannot extend this to the three years as previously intended.’

Finance NI: Update From Finance Minister On Draft Budget


Local Housing Allowance Rates Frozen for a Second Year at 2020/2021 Levels

In force from 31 January 2022, the Housing Benefit and Universal Credit Housing Costs (Executive Determinations) (Amendment and Modification) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 (SR.No.15/2022) amend -

  • the Housing Benefit (Executive Determinations) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008; and
  • the Universal Credit Housing Costs (Executive Determinations) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016

- to provide for LHA rates in 2022/2023 to be retained at the same cash levels as applied from April 2020.



Organ Donation Legislation

Campaigners have welcomed legislation to bring opt-out organ donation to Northern Ireland. The legislation, which will align Northern Ireland with the rest of the UK, passed its final stage in the assembly on Tuesday. It means people will automatically become donors unless they specifically state otherwise.



£10m jobs and skills fund

A new £10million scheme has been launched by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey to support a range of sectors in their recovery from the impact of the pandemic.

The Covid Recovery Programme Employment & Skills Initiative will provide grant funding for the next three years to support individuals and not-for-profit organisations with costs for new or enhanced roles within the Arts, Heritage, Creative Industries, Sports and Voluntary and Community sectors.

Communities NI: The Covid Recovery Programme Employment & Skills Initiative


Parental Leave legislation

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons secured the backing of the Assembly for his Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Bill. With this Bill, working parents will be entitled to two weeks' statutory paid leave following the death of a child or stillbirth. He stated:

“…This new employment right will be introduced following Royal Assent and will align provision here with the rest of the United Kingdom. It will provide an important statutory safety net for working parents who suffer such a profound loss…. I also welcome that the Assembly has passed the ground-breaking legislation that will in due course extend similar statutory support to working parents who suffer a miscarriage... Northern Ireland will now be the first jurisdiction in Europe, and one of only a handful across the world, to have legislated for miscarriage employment rights in such a comprehensive fashion. Following a full public consultation, my Department will draw up detailed miscarriage leave and pay regulations, with an introduction date following shortly after.”

Economy NI: Minister Wins Backing for Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Bill


NIHE Rents Frozen

Rents for Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties will be frozen for the coming financial year by Stormont's minister for communities. Deirdre Hargey said she was freezing rents to support residents during the "cost-of-living crisis". The 2022/23 rent freeze applies only to Housing Executive tenants.



NI Foodbanks: Interactive Map

An interactive mapping application has been developed which provides the location and contact details of all currently operational foodbanks, as of December 2020. Please note that, while many foodbanks in Northern Ireland are supported by the Trussell Trust (a GB-based umbrella charity), a significant number are managed by local community groups and churches. The interactive map contains the details of both.

NI Assembly: Foodbank distribution in Northern Ireland


Additional Funding for families with disabled children

Health Minister Robin Swann has announced an additional £500k in funding to support low income families caring for seriously ill or severely disabled children. The additional money will be allocated through the Family Fund charity. They also work closely with the families of those children affected by a disability or serious illness. See:

Family Fund: Grants Northern Ireland

Health NI: Health Minister Announces Additional Funding to Support Low Income Families Caring For Disabled Children


First stages of gambling reform 

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey took gambling reforms through the Consideration Stage of the legislative process. The Minister introduced the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Bill as a first phase in wider reform. Minister Hargey said: “…This Bill is proposing the first substantial changes to gambling law here in nearly 40 years and I am pleased I have been able to get it to this stage. It is the first stage of reform. I also wanted to use the opportunity this Bill provides to support the efforts of local charities, sports clubs and other voluntary groups to raise more money for good causes in our community. In my view, the current Bill should be regarded as a start, not as an end.  When I originally announced my plans to reform our gambling laws last May, I proposed a two-phased approach. This Bill represents the first of those two phases. Much more work will need to be done in the next phase.”

The Bill will have its Consideration Stage today where the Assembly will have an opportunity to vote on amendments to the Bill which was introduced by the Minister on 27 September last year.

This Bill will deliver tangible changes in around 14 key areas of premises-based gambling, including improving protection for children and young people and the creation of enabling powers to allow for industry Codes of Practice to be introduced alongside an industry levy.  The levy, in particular, opens up the possibility of more funding in the future to help those affected by, or at risk of, gambling related harm.

NI Assembly: Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements Bill


NI Benefits Statistics Summary

Communities NI: Northern Ireland Benefits Statistics Summary November 2021


NI Assembly Questions

Energy Payment Support Scheme

AQW 28042/17-22 Mr Peter Weir (DUP - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether recipients of tax credits or carer's allowance qualify for the Energy Payment Support Scheme.

The Energy Payment Support Scheme (EPSS) will provide financial support to around 280,000 people on low incomes and in receipt of specified means-tested benefits administered by my Department.

Individuals will be eligible for this payment if, during the qualifying week (Monday 13th December to Sunday 19th December 2021 inclusive), they were in receipt of one or more of the following benefits:

  • Pension Credit;
  • Universal Credit;
  • Income-related Employment and Support Allowance;
  • Income-based Jobseekers Allowance;
  • Income Support.


AQW 28041/17-22 Mr Peter Weir (DUP - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether the Energy Payment Support Scheme will require any additional regulations or legislation to give legal effect to the payments.

The Energy Payment Support Scheme will require new regulations which will be brought forward to enable my Department to provide financial assistance to those individuals on low incomes who are unlikely to be able to pay their energy bills as a result of the unprecedented rise in global wholesale energy costs.


AQW 28039/17-22 Mr Peter Weir (DUP - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities when it is intended that people will receive payments under the Energy Payment Support Scheme.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are administering the payments for this Scheme on my Department’s behalf, and my officials are engaging with DWP officials to ensure these payments can be made as quickly as practically possible.


Discretionary Support Scheme Review

AQO 2972/17-22 Ms Sinéad Ennis (SF - South Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities when she expects to respond to the panel of experts' review of the Discretionary Support scheme.

I would like to thank the independent panel for their efforts in completing a comprehensive review of Discretionary Support. This review is important to ensure that Discretionary Support is delivering for the people who need it most and is fit for purpose going forward.

I recently received the panel’s final report and I am currently considering the recommendations for improvements they have made. I expect that the report will be published in the coming weeks.

I will also be issuing a formal response to each of the specific recommendations along with details of my Department’s plans for changes to the Discretionary Support scheme.



AQW 28424/17-22 Mr Andy Allen (UUP - East Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities how many social security sanctions have been issued in each of the last five years.

Details on Social Security Sanctions can be found in the Welfare Supplementary Payments, Discretionary Support, Standards of Advice & Assistance and Sanctions Annual Reports

Information specific to Universal Credit Sanctions can be found in Tables 6a, 6b and 6c of the supplementary tables to the Universal Credit Statistics publication. These published statistics can be accessed on the DfC website.


Anti-Poverty Strategy

AQW 28317/17-22 Mr Colin McGrath (SDLP - South Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail the timeframe for the publication of the regional anti-poverty strategy.

My Department is leading on the development of the Executive’s new Anti-Poverty Strategy. Work on the Strategy continues through a co-design process focused on ensuring that stakeholders’ voices are heard and articulated in its development. A number of additional steps are being taken to enhance the co-design process and provide an opportunity for direct engagement between the Anti-Poverty Strategy Co-design Group and Executive Ministers.

I am committed to delivering the strategies and ensuring their timely publication so they can begin to make an impact, these issues are too important to rush. I am keen to take the appropriate time to ensure that we develop strategies that will set the scene for continuous progress and make a meaningful difference to people’s lives.


F2F PIP Assessments

Mr Frew asked the Minister for Communities when face-to-face personal independence payment assessments will recommence in full for all applicants. (AQO 3115/17-22)

Ms Hargey: Face-to-face assessments for PIP resumed on 1 July last year. Currently, that is only for those who are unable to take part in a telephone assessment due to their condition; for example, people with hearing or speech impairments, those who do not have a telephone or those who experience technical difficulties with calls. The Department will continue to monitor the policy in that area as COVID-19 restrictions begin to change.

Mr Frew: …The Minister will know the inadequacies of a phone conversation when it comes to assessing how an ailment affects a person, and the help and support that they may have with them at assessments is not the same through a phone conversation, even if it is on loudspeaker. Will the Minister do all in her power to get everybody back to face-to-face assessments, and when will that take place?

Ms Hargey: We are keeping that under review with the changes in the restrictions. We know the difficulties in getting the changes through. Hopefully, the Health Minister will make an announcement on that shortly. Over that period from 1 July, 30 appointments were booked for face-to-face assessments, at which 17 people attended. Nine did not show up, and that could have been for a variety of reasons. If anyone requests a face-to-face meeting, we will consider that. I want to get to a point when we are offering face-to-face appointments again and not just for a prescriptive group. Many people found a benefit in having telephone assessments. Some do not want to do face-to-face assessments. It is about making sure that we find a variety of offers that suit the needs of the person who is applying and that we can offer whatever method they are most comfortable with.


PIP Reviews

Mr M Bradley asked the Minister for Communities to outline why applicants are required to submit their completed personal independence payment (PIP) review forms so far in advance of the assessment taking place. (AQO 3114/17-22)

Ms Hargey: Last year, just over 22,000 PIP reviews were processed. Therefore, it is important to allow a maximum period for reviews to be completed to prevent any risk of a person’s existing PIP payment running out. That is essential as the end of a PIP award can impact on other benefits currently in payment, such as carer's allowance and income-related benefits. The review process begins only when the form is returned, and anyone who needs more time to complete the form, including help to fill it in, will be given it if they contact the Department. In addition, last April, I introduced the completion of PIP award reviews in-house where sufficient evidence is available.

All PIP review forms are scrutinised immediately on receipt by the Department to establish if a PIP can be awarded again, either at the same rate as before or at an increased rate, if there has been a change, without the need for an assessment. Currently, close to half of the PIP reviews are determined in-house by the Department, meaning that claimants can be notified straight away of the outcome of the review, and, where appropriate, awards are increased immediately. All processes are continually kept under review.

Mr M Bradley:… The issue is that review forms are being sent out about 10 months in advance of a PIP award coming to an end. The form is completed and returned, but, by the time the person is assessed, their conditions have changed and the form is no longer relevant. What is the Department doing to reduce those times and make the PIP process less stressful for applicants?

Ms Hargey: As I said, the reason we try to seek the information earlier is just the time it takes for the assessment process and to look at any new information or evidence. We want to avoid taking it too close to the end of the assessment period because, if the review is not completed on time or someone does not turn up for an assessment, that could stop the payment, which would have a knock-on effect on other benefits that I listed.

As I said, nearly half of the assessments are now done in-house. I want to continue to increase the number of assessments being done in-house. For some of those with longer-term awards, we are trying to turn those over to ensure that a bigger percentage goes through, and 81% have been given an award of five years or more. Of those who are paid PIP, around 63,000, which is 39%, receive the maximum amount payable.

We continue to keep it under review. It is important that the applicant gets any new or additional information in as soon as possible so that it can be assessed. If we can do that through a desktop exercise in the Department, we hope to do that to speed up the process.


PIP Assessments In-House

Mr Blair: Can the Minister give any further details on the plans to bring PIP assessments in-house, including in particular whether she will consider using the Royal College of Occupational Therapists model when considering assessments and applications? That model considers the whole person, including the impact that mental health has on the day-to-day activities of that person.

Ms Hargey: I have already given a policy intent that I want those services to be brought in-house again. I want to make sure that that is done, but, in order to do that, I need to work with the Department of Health. Obviously, we have been looking at the Scottish model and others to see the approach that they take, working through local health trusts. The closer we can align the assessments to health professionals who know the individuals, their injuries and their physical or mental disabilities, the better an assessment that will make. When you look at the appeals, you see that it is the new evidence that is presented at the later stage of the appeals process that overturns the original decision. It is about front-loading all that as much as possible.

I made a case to the Executive for additional funding to do that. Unfortunately, it never made it on to the Executive table to be discussed. I have already communicated with the Health Minister and the Department of Health to see how they can work with us and to look at a date on which we could start to bring those services in-house or, at least, pilot that approach in each health trust. Those discussions are ongoing. Once I have more definitive information or dates, I can provide those to the House.

Mr Durkan: The PIP process causes people a lot of stress, and its faults were laid bare by the ombudsman's report. The Minister spoke about her work with the Minister of Health. It is right that we should look at every way to take the stress out of the situation for people. Has there been any work with the Department of Health around information sharing, given the delays and difficulties that many people have in accessing their medical records for assessments?

Ms Hargey: That is part of the discussion that we have been having. I welcomed the NIPSO report, and we continue to work with the ombudsman on the recommendations that she laid out around making changes. We have already started to bring more of the assessments in-house, and that is part of it. I have already signed off on my policy intent to bring that service in-house again.

Part of the difficulty, as I understand it, is that there is no single database in the health system that holds all of that information. We hit that problem when we looked at food access during the pandemic and tried to get all the information for those who were shielding. Those records are kept by different surgeries, which all use different systems. The Department of Health is looking at an integrated system that will start to bring that all under one roof, but getting to that point will take time. That is why we are working closely with Health. We need to work closely with Health, because it has the professionals who can do the assessments and, importantly, who know the individuals. Those conversations are ongoing.


Universal Credit

AQW 29333/17-22 Mr Mark Durkan (SDLP - Foyle)

To ask the Minister for Communities for a breakdown of the number of households in receipt of Universal Credit for each of the last three years.

The number of households in receipt of Universal Credit for each of the last three years can be found in Table 1A of the supplementary tables to the Universal Credit Statistics publication. These published statistics can be accessed on the DfC website via the weblink.

Parliamentary Questions

Sanctions Early Warning System: Pilot

Chris Stephens. Scottish National Party UIN 119672

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what plans she has for a small scale pilot to test yellow card warning systems in place of immediate benefit sanctions.

Mims Davies, Conservative

The Department committed to look at processes to give claimants a written warning, instead of a sanction, for a first sanctionable failure to attend a Work-Search Review.

We have completed one small proof of concept, and we plan to run another proof of concept this year.


Risk Review Time Frame

Kate Osamor UIN 97002

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what the time frame is for the Risk Review Team to finish reviews of benefits it has suspended.

Any decision to suspend a claim to benefit by the Risk Review Team is not made lightly and includes an assessment of a person’s personal circumstances. Suspension of benefit is a last resort and is based on the risk that a person may not be entitled to benefit.

Where a claim is suspended, we are unable to make any alternative payments. In law, there is no right of appeal against a decision to suspend payment of benefit.

If it is determined there is entitlement to Universal Credit, following the receipt of additional information and evidence from the claimant, the suspension would be lifted immediately and we would always aim to pay benefits at the earliest opportunity, including any arrears that may be due. Where a review determines there is no entitlement to Universal Credit an outcome decision will be made to that effect. This decision can be appealed.

We make all claimants aware of the evidence we need and the consequence of failing to provide it within prescribed timescales. For any Universal Credit claim that is suspended as a consequence of the Risk Review Team activity, the claimant is notified by journal and text messages, along with a means by which they can contact the Department and speak to the agent responsible for that case. At no time should claimants be unaware of the action they need to take and how they may contact us to provide evidence.

The length of time a review may take to complete is largely dependent on the engagement of the claimant and the timely provision of any information requested. Claimants are asked to provide requested information within a 14-day window for digital submissions, extended to 28 days if they have indicated a postal submission. Once a customer engages with us, the time taken to complete a review is case specific, dependant on the information provided. Once entitlement is established, payments are put into payment as soon as possible.