'THINK' January - February 2023 Edition

The Advice NI Policy & Information team is delighted to publish this bumper January / February 2023 edition of our policy eNewsletter ‘THINK’.


Professor Eileen Evason CBE - A Tribute

This month brought the sad news of the death of Eileen Evason CBE, Emeritus Professor in social administration and a key ally to the independent advice sector in Northern Ireland. Advice NI Head of Policy, Kevin Higgins, who worked closely with Professor Evason on the Welfare Mitigations Report, shares his personal recollections:
It was with a deep sense of shock and sadness that we all learned about the passing of Professor Evason. I feel privileged to have witnessed her values and qualities at first-hand during the years that I have known and worked with Eileen – that is to say Professor Evason CBE, the CBE being awarded in 2013 for services to disadvantaged people. Never was an honour more richly deserved.
Like many, I regarded Eileen with awe even before we met, and this developed into such a deep respect and affection when I saw first-hand not only the expertise and knowledge (which is often taken for granted when you speak about Eileen) but the work ethic, the drive, the personality, the total commitment to whatever it was she was doing, her compassion and her passion to make a difference – particularly for those who, because of their circumstances, usually found themselves on the receiving end of injustice.
We see Eileen’s influence in so many places: aside from her distinguished academic career, she had a long-standing involvement with the community and voluntary sector, including working for women’s rights, supporting victims of domestic violence, championing the rights of older people, and advocating for independent advice services.
Perhaps most significantly, without her leadership and energy the Welfare Mitigations Report – now, of course, fittingly known as the ‘Evason Report’ – would not have happened. This document protected thousands and thousands of people from the harshest impacts of welfare reform and, I might add, also saved the Assembly from collapse.
A lifetime of service, for which we are all truly grateful. Eileen, may you Rest in Peace.

Issue in Focus: Cost of Living

Advice NI Energy Bills Support Scheme Information

To support advisers and clients, we have published a Policy and Information Briefing on the £600 energy payment scheme for Northern Ireland, which incorporates both the Energy Bills Support Scheme (EBSS) and Alternative Fuels Payment (AFP). The briefing draws on information from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, official guidance and input from a range of stakeholders to provide answers to frequently asked questions about the scheme.
Advice NI Energy Bills Support Scheme information


Media Engagement from Advice NI Head of Policy

In view of the rollout of the £600 energy payments our Head of Policy, Kevin Higgins, has made a number of BBC radio appearances to discuss the scheme and provide reassurance to members of the public.
BBC Radio Ulster: Inside Business
BBC Radio Ulster: On Your Behalf
BBC Radio 4: Money Box


Official Information on the Energy Bills Support Scheme

A range of official guidance on the delivery of the £600 energy scheme is available from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, accessible via gov.uk.
Getting household energy bill support in Northern Ireland

Guidance for electricity suppliers

Guidance on the pass-through requirements for energy price support provided to intermediaries


Post Office Urges Customers to Redeem Vouchers

Energy bills support payments delivered by voucher need to be redeemed at a local Post Office branch, and the organisation is encouraging people to act promptly. This will help the Post Office to effectively manage the flow of cash through its branches. In addition, recipients are encouraged to transfer the funds into a bank account where possible.
BBC: Post Office urges customers to use vouchers quickly


Energy Payment Status Checker for Power NI Customers

Power NI have provided an online system to allow their electricity customers to check the status of their £600 energy support payment. To complete the form, customers will need either their Meter Point Reference Number (MPRN) or Keypad Point Reference Number (KPRN).
Power NI: Check the status of the £600 government energy support payment


Energy Bills Support Scheme Legislation

To support the delivery of its energy bills support, the government has issued new regulations requiring so-called ‘intermediaries’, such as landlords, to ensure that the benefit is passed on to the end user. The regulations came into force from 12 January 2023.
Energy Bills Support Scheme and Alternative Fuel Payment Pass-through Requirement (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023 (SI.No.10/2023)


Latest Update to JRF’s Cost of Living Tracker

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has published its findings from the third in a series of large scale studies of households in the bottom 40% of incomes. The findings are summarised by the report’s author, Rachelle Earwaker, as follows:
We find that it is households on the very lowest incomes who are struggling the most, with three quarters of those in the bottom 20% of incomes going without food or other basic essentials like clothing or toiletries. People on Universal Credit (UC), private renters and young adults are all seeing rising and worrying levels of hardship.
The report recommends significant action by the government, including enhancements to Universal Credit, unfreezing Local Housing Allowance rates and an end to unaffordable debt collection by the government departments
Going under and without: JRF’s cost of living tracker, winter 2022/23

Social Policy News

Benefit Overpayment Recovery Policy Criticised in Judicial Review

In a judgement hot off the presses, Mrs Justice Steyn has severely criticised the Department for Work and Pensions’ policy on overpayment recovery, and its approach to discretionary waivers in particular:
[2023] EWHC 233 (Admin)
In the case, the claimant, who was supported in bringing the case by the Public Law Project, had sought a waiver on an overpayment of Universal Credit amounting to £8623.20, which the Department accepted was due entirely to official error.
The claimant’s barrister, Tom Royston, noted on Twitter:
K was overpaid £9k, entirely due to DWP error. Told at least 4x by DWP no error; relied on that. When asked not to recover from her benefit, officials did not respond, then twice denied power to waive, then 3x refused her request. Court quashes refusals.
Judgment records some extraordinary statistics on the number of official error overpayments and the 'vanishingly low' rate of waiver.
Justice Steyn supports the submission of the claimant that the Department has been operating an unlawful policy in its approach to waivers, with particular reference to its failure to publish internal guidance known as the Decision Makers Guide to Waiver, which the Department told the court had now been integrated into the Benefit Overpayment Recovery Guide.
We will continue to monitor this case and any response from the Departments in GB and Northern Ireland. In the meantime, our policy and information briefing provides a comprehensive guide to discretionary waivers and calls on the government to take further action in this important policy area.
Restore Confidence in the Benefit Overpayment Recovery System


Ofcom Supports Advice NI to Promote Digital Literacy

Ofcom is commissioning a number of organisations across the UK to help improve online media literacy skills among groups and communities most at risk of online harm.
Online media literacy is having the skills, knowledge and understanding to safely participate in the online world. It empowers people to become informed digital decision-makers and, importantly, to identify and protect themselves and others against harmful content.
Advice NI’s digital champions will deliver a structured course for older adults, with participants learning about using online services, avoiding scams, and identifying misinformation.
Ofcom supports organisations boosting online literacy skills in local communities


MacMillan PIP Petition: Pay PIP Now

Macmillan is campaigning for the UK Government to cut distressingly long waiting times for Personal Independence Payment (PIP) down to 12 weeks.
We agree that it is unacceptable that many people living with cancer are being put under significant financial strain while they wait an average of 16 weeks for the support they urgently need and are entitled to.
Pay PIP Now: Sign Sarifa's Petition


Charities Call for an Energy Social Tariff

In an open letter sent to the Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt MP, 95 charities and non-profit organisations across the UK have joined together to call for more targeted support in the form of a social tariff for the energy market to help older and disabled households heat their homes.
 ‘In April 2022, the price cap rose by 54% to nearly £2,000. This resulted in a sharp increase in numbers falling into fuel poverty. Estimates show that the energy crisis had pushed over 6.7 million UK households into fuel poverty… In light of this, we urge your department to consider, as part of your work to protect consumers post April 2024, a targeted support mechanism in the form of a social tariff for the energy market – a discounted, targeted tariff aimed at those in greatest need to ensure they are able to live in their homes comfortably. We urge you to consider a progressive funding mechanism … In our view, this kind of targeted support should be automatically made available to those who need it including: people on means tested benefits, disability benefits, and Carer’s Allowance alongside those still struggling with their bills but missing out on support from the welfare system.’
Ninety-five organisations call for the introduction of a social tariff
Social Tariff Letter


Review of Poverty Amongst NI’s Unpaid Carers

Carers NI’s State of Poverty report, which we covered in the previous edition, described the ‘obscene’ impact of poverty on unpaid carers here in Northern Ireland and showed that nearly one in three unpaid carers in Northern Ireland were struggling to make ends meet.
Therefore, it is timely that a new Carer Poverty Commission will spend the next 12 months gathering evidence from local households and designing recommendations for the Stormont Executive to help tackle poverty and destitution among Northern Ireland’s carer population.
The Commission is led by Carers NI and involves unpaid carers along with key figures from academia, the community sector, food bank providers and other poverty experts.
‘Obscene’ impact of poverty on NI’s unpaid carers blasted

Unpaid carers being left in debt, hardship and fear - new commission chair

Carer Poverty Commission to be established in Northern Ireland


Severely Disabled Benefits Claimants Call on DWP to Compensate Thousands Who Were Unlawfully Short Changed in Benefit Payments

Following a conclusive and robust ruling from the Court of Appeal two severely disabled men known as TP and AR have called on the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to compensate up to 50,000 vulnerable benefits claimants who have been unlawfully stripped of benefits worth thousands of pounds.
Leigh Day

Legislative Changes

Increase to UC Administrative Earnings Threshold (AET)

Following on from the announcement in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, the government has legislated for a further increase in the Administrative Earnings Threshold for Universal Credit. The AET is the level of earnings that separates UC claimants into either the ‘light touch’ or ‘intensive work search’ regimes, so an increase means more people on UC will be required to take steps to either improve their pay or increase the hours they work. This is the second increase to the AET in a matter of months.
In force from 30 January 2023, the new regulations amend regulation 97(14) of the Universal Credit Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 to increase the AET:

  • for an individual, to monthly earnings equivalent to working 15 hours per week at the national living wage (currently £617), up from 12 hours; and
  • for a couple, to monthly earnings equivalent to working 24 hours per week at the national living wage (currently £988), up from 19 hours.

Universal Credit (Administrative Earnings Threshold) (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2023
The government claims that the changes are about ‘forging a robust labour market building on positive changes … already made and supporting even more people to progress in the workplace.’ However, the Public Law Project in their response to the Autumn Statement described any increasing emphasis on sanctions as ‘a retrograde step … Not only does the evidence show that they are harmful and ineffective, the high number that are overturned on appeal suggests many are handed out incorrectly and unlawfully.’
Hundreds of thousands more workers to receive job support boost in spring

Autumn Statement: What does it mean for welfare rights?


Local Housing Allowance Rates Retained at 2020 Levels

New regulations have been issued in relation to determining Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates for 2023-24, and these retain the existing levels that have been in place since 31 March 2020. In force from 31 January 2023, the regulations modify what are known as the Executive Determination Regulations for both Housing Benefit and Universal Credit in line with the relevant statutory duties.
Housing Benefit and Universal Credit Housing Costs (Executive Determinations) (Modification) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2023
A continued freeze in LHA rates means more private renters will have a shortfall in their housing costs, particularly unwelcome when the basic cost of living continues to rise steeply.


MPs Approve Changes to Bereavement Benefits

MPs have voted in favour of changing eligibility criteria for bereavement benefits, meaning cohabiting parents and their children will be able to get support. Around 21,000 families who have previously been denied support because they weren’t married or in a civil partnership will be able to apply for retrospective payments and around 1,800 families each year will now be eligible for support. Charities are waiting for more details from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department for Communities (DfC) about how and when people can make their claims.
Bereavement Benefits (Remedial) Order 2022

Thousands of grieving cohabiting families with children to be made eligible for bereavement benefits

Advice NI Briefing: Bereavement Support Payments in Northern Ireland


Labour Market Report

NISRA’s Labour Market Report (LMR) is a monthly overview of key labour market statistics for Northern Ireland. It includes figures from the Labour Force Survey (LFS), claimant count, redundancies, and HMRC PAYE statistics.
Notable statistics from the current release show an upturn in employment figures and earning power, although the labour market remains in recovery compared to its pre-pandemic position. There was also a slight increase in the claimant count for the first time since February 2021.
Labour Market Report – January 2023


Mental Health & Homelessness

Simon Community NI and Depaul, as organisations delivering support and temporary accommodation to people experiencing homelessness across Northern Ireland, have published the findings of a joint study that aimed to gain a greater understanding of the mental health issues of people experiencing homelessness.
Both charities have been growing exceedingly concerned about the increase in the presentation of mental health issues among the people they support. To address the problems, the report outlines 6 recommendations: the introduction of a statutory duty to prevent and end homelessness; an action plan for the delivery of the Mental Health Strategy; incorporation of homelessness service providers into the Mental Health Strategy; consider adopting a Psychologically Informed Environment (PIE) approach to homelessness provision; investment in training on Trauma Informed Care; and, improved referral pathways, with person-centred and trauma-informed care central to service delivery.
Simon Community: Mental Health & Homelessness


Big Increase in PIP Claimants

Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals that the number of working-age people newly awarded disability benefits doubled between July 2021 and July 2022. The report shows that the increase applies across the age range, although the increase has been greatest amongst teenagers, and mental health or behavioural conditions account for 70% claims in those under 25. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a significant backlog, although the impact does not appear to be reflected in waiting times at present.
The number of new disability benefit claimants has doubled in a year


JRF Publish UK Poverty Report

The UK Poverty 2023 report by JRF sets out recent trends in poverty across the UK, how levels of poverty differ between groups of people and regions, and the impact it has on people’s lives.
UK Poverty 2023 looks at trends in poverty across many of its important characteristics and impacts. The latest official poverty data used in the report was collected between April 2020 and March 2021 but attempts to build up a more comprehensive picture of the current state of poverty in the UK, and form a judgement of future prospects.
UK Poverty 2023: The essential guide to understanding poverty in the UK


Work & Pensions Committee Publishes Responses to Report on Pensions

The Work and Pensions Committee has published responses from the government, the Financial Conduct Authority and the Money and Pension Service to its report on saving for later life, which warned that more than 60% of people were still at risk of missing out on an adequate standard of living in retirement.
The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Rt Hon Sir Stephen Timms MP, voiced his concerns that the government ‘is tinkering around the edges and relying on nudging people towards engaging with pensions rather than tackling the problem of under saving head on.’
Saving for later life: Work and Pensions Committee publishes Government Response to Report

Information Resources

NIHE’s Fundamental Review of Allocations (FRA) Underway

To support the commencement of the Housing Executive’s Fundamental Review of Allocations project, we have published an information briefing covering the first phase of NIHE’s implementation of major changes to the housing allocation system in Northern Ireland. From 1 February 2023, applicants will essentially be unrestricted in their choice of area, but new applicants will be restricted to a maximum of two ‘reasonable’ offers of accommodation.
Information Briefing Note: Fundamental Review of Allocations (FRA) Project


Research on the Increasing Cost of Living & Inflation

The House of Commons Library has published a briefing drawing together its various publications on rising prices, particularly food, energy and fuel prices, including the effect of the conflict in Ukraine. It explains government support and how high prices, interest rates and other policies will affect household budgets.
Research on the increasing cost of living and inflation

Events And Training

Women’s Resource & Development Agency Community Campaigners

The Women’s Resource & Development Agency, which works regionally to advance women’s equality and participation in society, is seeking applicants for its latest Community Campaigners Course.
Applications are welcome from Belfast City Council residents keen to get more active in their local community and interested in developing their campaigning knowledge and skills.
The course will be delivered via Zoom over 4 consecutive Monday mornings, starting on Monday 20th February. An OCN Level 3 Endorsed course, the 4 sessions cover critical thinking, communication skills, strategic planning, media training and how to use human rights and equality law to strengthen a campaign.
Anyone interested should send a paragraph explaining why, along with contact details, to Deirdre.quinn@wrda.net.
Recruitment now open for the next Community Campaigners Course


Housing Rights Training & Events

Housing Rights, part of the independent advice network, provides a variety of training delivered via a mix of formats: in-person, online, webinars (live and recorded), and self-paced courses.
The scheduled programme of housing training courses covers all aspects of housing and homelessness, such as debt and arrears (rental and mortgage), benefits, as well as issues affecting both social housing and the private rented sector, such as anti-social behaviour. Further information on any course and booking is available by selecting the course from the schedule at the Housing Rights website.
Housing Rights: Training & Events

Funding Opportunities

Women’s Budget Group Offer Research Funding

To support local women’s groups who want to explore how the cost-of-living crisis is impacting women in their local communities and provide policy recommendations for local authorities to address these impacts, the WBG will provide a grant of £5,000 to contribute towards time and staff costs for the organisation/individual conducting the research, plus in-kind support through training and data advice.
Applications are invited from local women’s organisations or individual dedicated feminists embedded in their local community and based in the UK. No previous formal experience of research is needed – the WBG welcomes both new and seasoned researchers. However, there must be a time commitment of around 23 days (or 2.5 days on average per month) over a 9-month period to carry out this research project and engage with WBG support.
The deadline for applications is Wednesday 15th February.
Funded Research Opportunity: Women and the Cost-of-Living Crisis in my Local Area

Parliamentary Questions

PIP & Safeguarding

UIN 113277
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether he has made a recent assessment of the potential impact of sharing clinical markers to identify claimants who have been flagged for safeguarding reasons between Capita and his Department on the likelihood of those individuals making a successful claim for personal independence payment.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative
DWP do not receive clinical markers from the NHS or have a safeguarding clinical marker on our systems.
In some cases, claimants may not be able to engage effectively with the claims process, due to reduced mental capacity or insight – for example, they may not understand the consequences of not returning a claim form and not have a personal acting body (PAB) to help them. In the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) journey, such claimants are considered to require Additional Support (AS) from DWP. They will have an AS marker attached to their case and elements of the PIP claims process have been adapted to provide further support for this group.
Having an AS marker does not automatically determine whether a claimant has direct entitlement to PIP or not, and there has been no assessment on the likelihood of individuals with AS markers making a successful claim for Personal Independence Payment.
For further information on Additional Support please see the PIP Assessment Guide section 1.12 PIP assessment guide part 1: the assessment process.


Social Security Benefits - Overpayments

UIN 121021
Neil Coyle, Independent

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many claimants subject to benefit overpayment recovery have been contacted by his Department to establish whether they are experiencing hardship as a result of the cost of living crisis since February 2022.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative
Deductions are made under legislation and cover a broad range of contingencies, like the recovery of fines to prevent incarceration, the continuation of supply of electricity or gas, payment of rent arrears to prevent homelessness, child maintenance liabilities to their children, and provision for one-off items of expenditure through advances and the repayment of debts. Given this broad range of circumstances, there is no requirement to undertake an assessment of a benefit customer’s ability to make these payments. Instead, the amounts that can be deducted are capped in legislation; in effect, Parliament has made an affordability assessment through the exercise of this cap.
DWP remains committed to working with anyone who is struggling with their deductions and encourages customers to contact DWP to discuss any concerns.
The department has a well-established process for working with individuals to support them to manage repayment of Government debt to DWP. Our agents will always look to negotiate affordable and sustainable repayment plans. For overpayment deductions specifically, where a person feels they cannot afford the proposed rate of deduction for an overpayment recovery, they are encouraged to contact the department’s Debt Management to discuss a temporary reduction in their rate of repayment or cessation of the deduction. This message is included in all Debt Management notifications to customers.
There is no minimum amount that a customer has to pay, and we have recently extended the time period for any reduced payment to remain in place.
Customers who do contact Debt Management are routinely referred to the Money Advisor Network, who work in partnership with DWP, to offer free independent and impartial money and debt advice. We also remain committed to His Majesty’s Treasury’s Breathing Space policy, which provides those with problem debt the right to legal protections from creditor action for a period of 60 days to enable them to receive debt advice and enter into an appropriate debt solution.
The Government understands the pressures people are facing with the cost of living this winter and is taking action to support people with their energy bills. The Government's Energy Price Guarantee will save a typical household around £900 this winter, based on what energy prices would have been under the current price cap - reducing bills by roughly a third. This is in addition to the £400 non-repayable discount to eligible households provided through the Energy Bills Support Scheme.
We have also made Cost of Living Payments worth up to £650 (paid in two lump sums of £326 and £324) providing targeted support for around eight million low-income households on means-tested benefits. In addition, six million eligible disabled people have received a one-off Disability Cost of Living Payment of £150 and pensioner households will have received a one-off payment of £300 alongside the Winter Fuel Payment.


State Retirement Pensions

UIN 122478
Alan Brown, Scottish National Party

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether a home responsibility protection qualifying year is deemed to have the same status as an earned income national insurance contribution qualifying year for assessing the required qualifying years for state pension contributions.
Laura Trott, Conservative
Home Responsibilities Protection (HRP) was available between 1978 and 2010. For people reaching State Pension age before 6 April 2010, HRP reduced the number of Qualifying Years needed for a basic State Pension. Each year of HRP reduced the required number of years for a full basic State Pension by one year.
Since 2010, Home Responsibilities Protection has been replaced by National Insurance Credits for Parents and Carers. For people reaching State Pension age after 6th April 2010, all recorded previous years of HRP have been converted into years of National Insurance credits. For the basic and new State Pension, Qualifying Years of National Insurance credits have equal value to those of National Insurance contributions.


Universal Credit & Managed Migration for ESA [i]

UIN 125368
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for what reason his Department has delayed the managed migration of benefit recipients claiming only income-based ESA until 2028-29.
Guy Opperman, Conservative
Employment and Support Allowance claimants are still able to make a claim for Universal Credit if they believe that they will be better off before they are migrated over.
As the Chancellor set out in his Autumn Statement in November, the United Kingdom faces significant economic challenges. The decision to delay the managed migration of the majority of income-based ESA claimants until 2028-29 is estimated to reduce costs by around £1bn over 5 years.


Disability - Government Assistance

UIN 131286
Vicky Foxcroft, Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when he plans to launch a consultation on the Disability Action Plan.
Tom Pursglove, Conservative
I announced on 1 December 2022 that a new Disability Action Plan will be consulted on, and published in, 2023. The plan will set out the action the Government will take in 2023 and 2024 to improve disabled people’s lives.
The Disability Action Plan will set out how we will go further, taking concerted action across government to improve disabled people’s lives. Ensuring the voice of disabled people is properly heard is a priority for this Government. We will run a full public consultation and engagement on the plan in 2023. The consultation will be accessible to ensure all disabled people who want to take part, can do so. More information will be announced shortly.


Food Bank Debate

Raise in the House of Lords by Lord Harries of Pentregarth (Crossbench Life peer), to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the long-term need for food banks.
Food Banks, debated on Monday 9 January 2023