'THINK' January 2022 Edition

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

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

We would draw your particular attention to the issue of Universal Credit overpayments due to Department (Official) error and mistakes. This in turn leads to claimants being penalised and their benefit subject to deductions – at the very time of an energy crisis and a cost of living crisis. Advice NI has initiated a Parliamentary Petition to seek to address this unacceptable situation.

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

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.

The scale of the problem:

Universal Credit - 20/21, Official Error overpayments = £330m
Universal Credit - 19/20, Official Error overpayments = £250m
Universal Credit waivers (write-offs) granted - 20/21 = £22,000
Universal Credit waivers (write-offs) granted - 19/20 = £13,000
Monetary value, 0.006% waivered

Universal Credit waiver statistics
UC Overpayment Waivers Requested
2019/2020: 60 - Accepted: 10 Total waived £13,000
2020/2021: 50 - Accepted: 10 Total waived £22,000
2021/2022: 70 - Accepted: 10 Total waived £54,000

Sign the petition here.

Supplementary Information on Official Error & the overpayment recovery waiver system:
Gov.uk: Benefit Overpayment Recovery Guide
UK Parliament: Universal Credit Overpayments
Gov.uk: Fraud and Error in the Benefit System for Financial Year Ending 2021


Voluntary and Community Sector: Pay and Conditions

Ms Sheerin asked the Minister for Communities to outline the pay and conditions for staff in the voluntary and community sector, announced on 15 December 2021. (AQO 2970/17-22)

Ms Hargey: In line with my announcement and ministerial statement of 15 December 2021, over £2·1 million has been made available to help employing organisations to improve the terms and conditions of the voluntary and community sector posts that are funded through my Department.

That has been focused on allocations to allow employing organisations to ensure:

  • alignment with the most recent rate of real living wage of £9.90 per hour;
  • a consolidated 2% increase on the current level of support provided by the Department for salaried posts, which has been calculated after ensuring that the real living wage increase is met;
  • a 7% non-consolidated payment, which has been calculated following applications of the previous two steps;
  • and an increase in support to allow for an increase in employers' pension contributions from the Government's recommended level of 3% to 5%.

In addition, effective from 1 January 2022, funded organisations are no longer required to inform the Department of short-term sickness absences of up to five working days for employees who are in posts that are supported by my Department.

NIAssembly: Official Report


£2M for Emergency Fuel Payments

Additional emergency payments will be made available to those severely impacted by the fuel price crisis. The Department for Communities, in collaboration with Bryson Charitable Group, the Consumer Council and a range of local energy companies, will contribute £2 million to an Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme. This scheme, which aims to benefit 20,000 families, will open on 6 January 2022 and will run until 31 March 2022.

See ‘NI Assembly Questions’ section below, for more information:
Communities NI: Hargey announces £2M for Emergency Fuel Payments


JRF Poverty Report

This report looks comprehensively at trends in poverty, you can download it here.


Terminal Illness Bill reaches Final Stage in Assembly

The Social Security (Terminal Illness) Bill, introduced by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, which extends access to fast-tracked financial support for the terminally ill, reached its final stage in the Assembly.

Minister Hargey said, “This reform is a critical step forward which will mean more people who find themselves facing the devastating news of a terminal diagnosis will benefit from fast-tracked access to financial support through social security benefits without having to follow the normal application and assessment route. They will not have to go through assessments and will get automatic access to benefits earlier. This Bill has been a priority for my Department and I want to thank Assembly members and stakeholders for supporting it and its accelerated passage through the Assembly...I will keep provision under review and consider further options for reform in the future.”

This reform, once introduced, will result in fast-tracked financial support where a terminal illness diagnosis has been received and death is reasonably expected within 12 months. Once the Bill has received Royal Assent, the Department plans to bring the changes into operation in early April this year.

Craig Harrison, Policy and Public Affairs Manager for Marie Curie Northern Ireland, said, “This is a hard-won victory for terminally ill people across Northern Ireland...We will continue to monitor the impact of the new system to ensure it as working as well as it can for as many dying people as possible.”

Communities NI: Communities Minister's Bill to Extend Terminal Illness Support reaches final stage in Assembly


Welfare Mitigations

Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Minister: “I propose to introduce two new sets of regulations in the coming weeks. The first set is required to extend the remaining welfare mitigation schemes, and the second will strengthen the existing benefit cap and bedroom tax mitigation schemes by closing the loopholes in both of them. An estimated 640 families with children are impacted by the benefit cap but do not receive a mitigation payment, and around 199 households are subject to the bedroom tax and do not receive mitigation payments. The proposed changes will ensure that they become eligible for those mitigation payments.

Details of my proposals to extend the remaining mitigation schemes and strengthen the benefit cap and bedroom tax mitigation schemes by closing the loopholes have been shared with Executive colleagues, and I hope to secure Executive agreement on those two sets of regulations shortly. The regulations are draft affirmative and will come to the House for approval. I have previously assured the Committee for Communities that it will be given the time to undertake its formal scrutiny role. Importantly, the legislation on that can be taken forward at the same time as the Bill, and I want to be clear that I am seeking to use accelerated passage only for the Bill.

Accelerated passage will enable my Department to plan for the operational implementation with a degree of certainty that the legislation will be in place on time, given that processes and systems will need to be updated in advance. If we cannot proceed on that route, the consequence will be a real risk that legislative passage will not be completed during the current mandate. That would mean that the Bill would fall and that an estimated 43,000 households across the North could face a cliff edge on 31 March this year, when their welfare mitigation payments would stop, unless the Assembly moves to avert that.”
Second Stage of the Welfare Supplementary Payments (Amendment) Bill [NIA 50/17-22] agreed, “My officials are making preparations to extend all existing welfare mitigation schemes, and, until Royal Assent is received for the Bill and until the draft Welfare Supplementary Payment (Extension) Regulations 2021 have been approved by a resolution of the Assembly, my Department will continue to make non-statutory welfare mitigation payments to all those who are eligible, based on the existing policy. That arrangement, whereby mitigation payments have continued since 1 April 2020, has been provided under the sole authority of successive Budget Acts. That process is currently set to expire on 31 March this year, hence the urgent need to make this legislation before then.”

NIAssembly: Official Report


Public Consultation is Launched on Reshaping Adult Social Care

Far-reaching plans to change the face of adult social care in Northern Ireland have today been tabled by Health Minister Robin Swann. The reform proposals will be the subject of a 16 week public consultation. A central priority of the plans is to significantly enhance both the amount and the quality of social care services – with a major focus on increasing investment to meet increasing levels of need. Recommendations also include stronger powers to regulate and inspect independent sector providers of care. The Department of Health also intends to review the current balance between private, public and voluntary sector provision in social care. The aim will be to ensure the best balance is struck between statutory and independent sector provision.

Health-NI: Public Consultation is Launched on Reshaping Adult Social Care
Health-NI: Consultation on The Reform Of Adult Social Care


Tax-free Childcare

You can get up to £500 every 3 months (up to £2,000 a year) for each of your children to help with the costs of childcare. This goes up to £1,000 every 3 months if a child is disabled (up to £4,000 a year).

Important to note: You cannot get Tax-Free Childcare at the same time as claiming Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, Universal Credit or childcare vouchers. If you successfully apply for Tax-Free Childcare, your Working Tax Credit or Child Tax Credit will stop straight away. You cannot apply for them again.

If you’ve already registered, you can sign in to your childcare account.

If you get Tax-Free Childcare, you’ll set up an online childcare account for your child. For every £8 you pay into this account, the government will pay in £2 to use to pay your provider. You can get Tax-Free Childcare at the same time as 30 hours free childcare if you’re eligible for both.

You can use it to pay for approved childcare, for example:

  • childminders, nurseries and nannies
  • after school clubs and play schemes

Your childcare provider must be signed up to the scheme before you can pay them and benefit from Tax-Free Childcare.

Check with your provider to see if they’re signed up.

If your child is disabled

You can use the extra Tax-Free Childcare money you get to help pay for extra hours of childcare. You can also use it to help pay your childcare provider so they can get specialist equipment for your child such as mobility aids. Talk to them about what equipment your child can get.



Advice NI Information Officer Updates

Energy Payment Support Scheme

As you will have seen, the Department for Communities has launched a £55m scheme to support vulnerable people to meet their fuel costs this winter. Those in receipt of specified benefits will be eligible for a payment of £200, which will be made through existing payment channels without the need for an application.

Eligibility criteria can be viewed on NI Direct.

The Department has emphasised that it also provides energy support through the Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme, the Affordable Warmth SchemeCold Weather Payments, and Discretionary Support.


Compensation Payments and Means-Tested Benefits

The Social Security (Income and Capital Disregards) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 came into operation on 5 January 2022 and the Department has published decision making memos to support the application of the new regulations:

ADM Memo 20/21

DMG Memo 4/152 (also 5/116, 8/101, 9/50, 13/124 & 14/73)

In short, the amendment means that compensation payments either for historical institutional child abuse in the United Kingdom or under the Windrush Compensation Scheme are disregarded when calculating entitlement to means-tested benefits.

NI Assembly Questions

Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme

Mr M Bradley asked the Minister for Communities how many applications have been processed for the emergency fuel payment scheme, which opened on 6 January 2022. (AQO 2966/17-22)

Ms Kimmins asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the emergency fuel payment scheme. (AQO 2971/17-22)

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I intend to answer questions 2 and 7 together. The unprecedented energy prices this year and, indeed, last year have meant that those who are already struggling financially are facing added pressures. I am aware that, without additional support, many individuals, particularly those on low incomes, may struggle to heat their home or pay their energy bills. That is why, on 13 January, I announced that I had secured £55 million for an energy payment support scheme for individuals on low incomes who are struggling to meet the rising energy costs owing to the global fuel crisis. The scheme provides for a one-off payment of £200 to be made automatically, without the need for an application, to around 280,000 eligible individuals who are in receipt of specified benefits.

I also recognised that there was a need for a smaller complementary fund to be delivered quickly for people who are in immediate crisis: people and families who are at risk of disconnection or who have been disconnected; and people who need immediate help. On 29 December, I was therefore delighted to announce that my Department will contribute £2 million to an emergency fuel payment scheme that is operated by Bryson Charitable Group. The scheme is a collaboration among the Utility Regulator, the Consumer Council and a number of energy providers. I thank all those organisations for their work on, and contributions to, the scheme.

The scheme will deliver targeted emergency support to those in fuel crisis and who have a temporary inability to meet their fuel costs. As at the close of play on 14 January, 2,358 applications had been made, of which 1,323 applications had been validated and found eligible, and 1,098 applicants had received their fuel payment. Bryson Charitable Group expects to process around 300 to 400 applications a day, although that will be subject to constant review.

Mr M Bradley: …..Minister, it is my understanding that over 300,000 homes throughout Northern Ireland are eligible, yet only 300 applications are being processed each day. People are experiencing frustration when they try to get on to the website or get through by phone. I think that we will be in this situation for some time to come, so is it apt for you to look at setting up a multi-agency task force to deal with the problem immediately and on an ongoing basis?

Ms Hargey: I look at the ongoing issues. I have met representatives from a variety of organisations, and simply setting up a task force will not deal with the immediate problem. We have fuel poverty in our society, and we are looking at action plans and the housing revitalisation programme to start to address the longer-term, systemic issues, but, at this point, we are also in a global fuel crisis. Those other programmes will mitigate the impact, but they will not overcome the issues that we face. The bigger issue is that the Bryson Charitable Group scheme was intended to target only 20,000 individuals, and it was always to be in addition to the £55 million scheme, which will target 280,000 individuals over the next period.

We have also paid out the winter fuel payment to just under 300,000 pensioners. Those payments went out in November and December. We have other supports, such as the discretionary support scheme, for those who find themselves in crisis, but we also need to see larger government responses. The Finance Minister wrote to the British Government about the removal of VAT on energy bills. I have been pushing for us to press the British Government again for a response. The Economy Minister has responsibility for energy policy, and a paper on that is out for consultation at the moment. We are going to the British-Irish Council meeting on 4 February to look at the rising cost of energy. We will make those specific asks on VAT and other issues at that meeting.

Mr Allister: If someone successfully applies to the emergency fund, are they then also eligible for the energy payment support scheme? Is there any household limit in respect of either scheme?

Ms Hargey: If you are applying for the Bryson scheme, you will still get the automatic payment, because the Bryson scheme is to deal with an immediate potential threat of losing fuel support or being cut off or disconnected. As part of the process of applying for that, applicants have to provide evidence. Bryson has been working to make that better understood in advance of someone making an application. That system is being developed as the scheme begins to roll out.

On the other hand, with the other payments, my main function was to target those on the lowest incomes, and that would be those in receipt of means-tested benefits. That is 281,000 individuals. They will be the ones who will receive a direct payment of £200 without application, which will be paid directly into their bank or Post Office accounts, or whatever accounts they highlighted to receive their benefits.


Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme & Access

AQW 27833/17-22 Mr George Robinson MBE (DUP - East Londonderry)

To ask the Minister for Communities what measures have been put in place to ensure that those who have no access to computers, or are not computer literate, are able to avail of funding under the Emergency Fuel Payments Scheme.

The Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme is being operated by Bryson Care, an arm of the Bryson Charitable Group. Bryson Care have confirmed that they are making hard-copy versions of the application available. They are also being distributed to the Voluntary and Community sector organisations to enable support for individuals when completing applications. Bryson Care is making regular changes and improvements to help the scheme operate better.


Charities Recovery Programme

AQW 26987/17-22 Mr Andy Allen (UUP - East Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities when the £5 million allocated for charities and social enterprises will be delivered.

The Covid Recovery Programme for Organisations 2021-22 covers organisations in the culture, language, arts, heritage, sports, charities and social enterprise sectors. Seven delivery bodies will seek applications from organisations in the sectors in January, with assessments being made in February and payment processes in March.


Funeral Expenses Payment

AQW 27115/17-22 Ms Kellie Armstrong (APNI - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities when Funeral Expenses Payment levels were last reviewed and compared with the average price of a funeral in Northern Ireland; and whether she will increase the amount allocated should a new review indicate the expenses payment does not meet at least 50 per cent of the cost of a funeral for a person on benefits, including pension credit recipients, where there is no funeral payment plan or savings available.

The amount allowed for “other funeral costs” was reviewed in 2019 and it was agreed that the cap should be increased from £700 to £1000. This change took effect in April 2020. Any further increases in the amount of the payment would require Executive approval and a change in legislation.


Benefits Access: Trafficking Survivors

AQW 27234/17-22 Miss Rachel Woods (GPNI - North Down)  

To ask the Minister for Communities whether she has made representations to the Department for Work and Pensions seeking that social security benefits are available to all recognised survivors of trafficking in Northern Ireland.

I am deeply concerned at the growing numbers of modern slavery including victims of trafficking. The Department for Justice provides financial support to potential victims of modern slavery who have been referred through the National Referral Mechanism (NRM). This support is provided for the duration of the NRM process through either of two external organisations, Migrant Help and Belfast & Lisburn Woman’s Aid.

My Department supports victims through the benefit system if they meet the qualifying conditions. Access to benefits is dependent on the existing rules governing migrants’ access to benefits.


Internet Services for Jobseekers

AQW 26985/17-22 Mr Peter Weir (DUP - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities what departmental resources have been allocated in 2021-22 for broadband provision, internet connection and computer hardware for jobseekers and others in receipt of benefits.

I refer the member to the answer provided to AQW 26984/17-22 [see question below].

The total planned expenditure for the Department’s Adviser Discretion Fund in 2021/22 is estimated to be £971k.

AQW 26984/17-22 Mr Peter Weir (DUP - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities what means of support or assistance, in terms of broadband provision, internet connection and computer hardware, her Department provides for jobseekers and others in receipt of benefits.

The Department’s Adviser Discretion Fund provides financial support in the form of grant payments of up to £1500 (including VAT) in a 12 month period to eligible customers to purchase essential goods or services to remove a barrier to employment. This may include essential digital equipment to enable the customer to satisfy work search activities (for example, a basic Laptop or Tablet).

My officials are currently exploring the provision of a broadband package for eligible jobseekers.


PIP Support for Mental Health

AQW 26880/17-22 Mr Justin McNulty (SDLP - Newry and Armagh)

To ask the Minister for Communities, pursuant to AQW 25699/17-22, what action her Department is taking on personal independence payment applications from individuals with diagnosed mental health conditions, to ensure they receive the support they require and to which they are entitled.

Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is available to anyone who has a long-term disability, including mental health issues, which impacts their daily life.

Claimants identified as being vulnerable, including those who have a mental health or learning disability, can access additional support at any point in the claim or assessment process. Additional safeguards are also in place in the event of the PIP form not being returned or where the person does not attend a telephone or face-to-face assessment.

Where vulnerability is identified, particular care is taken to ensure that the assessment choice is appropriate to the needs of the person. Mental Function Champions support Disability Assessors by providing additional expertise about mental health, cognitive, developmental and learning disabilities and can be referred to at any time during the assessment process.

As a further safeguard, people attending assessments are encouraged to bring another person with them to consultations where they would find this helpful; for example, to reassure them or to help them during the assessment. The person chosen is at the discretion of the individual being assessed and might be (but is not limited to) a parent, family member, friend, carer or advocate.


Discretionary Support 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.


Adviser Discretionary Fund

AQW 27882/17-22 Mr Mark Durkan (SDLP - Foyle)

To ask the Minister for Communities for her assessment of the uptake of upfront childcare costs and the wider Adviser Discretionary Fund.

On 12 April 2021, I increased ADF grant payments from £300 up to £1500 (including VAT) in a 12-month period. I am pleased to report that during the period 1 April to 31 December 2021, there have been 1,860 ADF grant awards. One third of these awards were above the previous £300 grant limit.

On 25 October 2021, I also made Upfront Childcare Costs available under ADF to help parents to start work, sustain and/or increase their hours or return to work following maternity leave. Since then, my Department has helped over 120 parents with average upfront childcare costs of approx. £600 for the first month.


Homeless & Temporary Accommodation

AQW 27467/17-22 Mr Stewart Dickson (APNI - East Antrim)

To ask the Minister for Communities what plans are in place to deal with the rising number of homeless people placed in temporary accommodation.

The Housing Executive has statutory responsibility for responding to Homelessness.

The Housing Executive’s strategic priorities to respond to homelessness are outlined in the Homelessness Strategy 2017-2022, and Chronic Homelessness Action Plan.

The Housing Executive has also continued to deliver actions outlined in its Covid-19 Reset Plan, published in November 2020. The Reset Plan outlines a range of priorities across the themes of rough sleeping, temporary accommodation, homelessness prevention, homelessness services and collaborative working to continue to support the most vulnerable in society as we emerge from the pandemic.

In addition, the Housing Executive is currently consulting on both the draft Homelessness Strategy 2022-27, which has recently been published and also on Homeless to Home, a draft Strategic Action Plan for Temporary Accommodation.

In line with their statutory duty, the Housing Executive will publish a revised version of the Homelessness Strategy 2022-27 in April 2022. The Housing Executive continues to work closely with the Department and its housing association delivery partners to increase the levels of new social housing, address housing need generally and reduce the number of Full Duty Applicants being placed in temporary accommodation.

Parliamentary Questions

Risk Review Process

Kate Osamor, Labour UIN 97001

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether claimants who have had their benefits suspended under the Risk Review process are able to request a reconsideration of that decision or appeal against it.

David Rutley, Conservative

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.


Long Covid

Cat Smith, Labour UIN 100581

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what steps the Government is taking to support people unable to work as a result of having long covid.

Chloe Smith, Conservative

The DWP offers financial support through Universal Credit and New Style Employment and Support Allowance for people affected by the pandemic, including those with long-COVID, if they satisfy eligibility criteria. In addition, people with long-COVID may be eligible to Personal Independence Payment.

Employers are legally required to pay Statutory Sick Pay to eligible employees who are off work sick including where sickness absence is due to long-COVID. Some employers may also decide to pay more, and for longer, through Occupational Sick Pay.

Furthermore, the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC), who advise the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions regarding Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit (IIDB), are investigating whether long-COVID can be prescribed as an occupational disease for the purposes of IIDB.