'THINK' March-April 2022 Edition

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

This jam-packed edition has a distinct ‘end of term’ feel as the Assembly drew to a close last week before the Elections in May, with a range of announcements across several Departments.

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

We lead with the Executive Office Apology to HIA Victims & Survivors. We also cover a range of other important developments including: The Period Products (Free Provision) Bill; Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill; Gambling reform; Private Tenancies Bill … not to mention the Chancellor’s Spring Statement; Children with No Recourse to Public Funds announcement; the establishment of the Child Funeral Fund; the publication of the Discretionary Support independent review, the provision of free broadband to eligible jobseekers and a planned increase to the small claims court limit.

We also have all the latest information in relation to support for Ukrainian nationals, including a ‘hot off the press’ Advice NI Information Briefing Paper.

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 [email protected] 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

Executive Office Apology to HIA Victims & Survivors

Survivors of historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland have been told that the state believes them - and is sorry. Ministers from the five main Stormont parties made statements of apology in the Northern Ireland Assembly. It follows a 2017 inquiry which examined the abuse of hundreds of children at Church and state-run institutions over seven decades.

The Sisters of Nazareth apologised to "anyone who has suffered abuse whether psychological, physical, sexual or neglect on any occasion when the sisters' standard of care fell below what was expected of them".

Archbishop Eamon Martin, the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, added that there had been "an appalling betrayal of a sacred trust" experienced by those who were abused in religious institutions. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Health and Social Care Board also issued statements to acknowledge their failings.

BBC: Abuse survivors hear Stormont public apology
BBC: Q&A Northern Ireland leaders’ abuse apology
NI Direct: Historical institutional abuse

 

Digital Fit Notes Legislation

New regulations remove barriers to fit notes being completed, authorised and issued digitally.

In force from 6 April 2022, the Social Security (Medical Evidence) and Statutory Sick Pay (Medical Evidence) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 (SR.No.120/2022) amend the Social Security (Medical Evidence) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1976 and the the Statutory Sick Pay (Medical Evidence) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1985 by removing the requirement for a doctor's statement to be completed in ink or indelible substance and for it to be signed by the doctor providing the statement.

Instead the new regulations provide that the name of the doctor, whether in the form of a signature or otherwise, be contained within the statement, and for the statement to be in the form provided for in Part 11 or Part 11A of the new regulations.

Legislation.gov: The Social Security and Statutory Sick Pay Regulations 2022

 

Poverty & Food Bank Use Report

A new report exploring the impact of poverty and food bank use on people's mental health. Written by Tom Pollard and co-produced with the Independent Food Aid Network and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, ‘Pushed to the Edge: poverty, food banks and mental health’ is based on interviews conducted with people needing to use food banks in November and December 2021.

Food Aid Network: Pushed to the Edge - Poverty, Food Banks and Mental Health

 

EPSS Disregard Legislation

In force from 10 March 2022, the Energy Payment Support Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2022 (SR.No.88/2022) inserts a disregard provision into the Energy Payment Support Scheme (Northern Ireland) 2022 (as provided for under the principal regulations SR.No.28/2022) so that payments under the scheme are not taken into account in the calculation of JSA, ESA, Income Support, UC or state Pension Credit.

Legislation.gov: The Energy Payment Support Scheme Regulations 2022

 

Period Products Bill

The Department for Communities will take responsibility for legislation that aims to make period products freely available. The Period Products Bill was proposed by the SDLP's Pat Catney. The Department for Communities said its minister, Deirdre Hargey, had agreed to take the lead on the Period Products (Free Provision) Bill "given the importance of this issue. This is an important step in the right direction towards free period products. Minister Hargey will work to ensure this important piece of legislation is completed in this mandate."

The Bill has completed it’s Final Stage, is currently awaiting Royal Assent and will place a duty on the Department for Communities to make period products available to those who need them. It will also mean the department will have to specify public buildings where products could be accessed, but mandates that healthcare and educational settings would be included.

BBC: Period poverty - Stormont department takes up legislation bid
NIAssembly: Period Products Bill 
NIAssembly: Official Report - Thursday 24 March 2022

 

Guide To Work Permission For Asylum Seekers

Most people who have claimed asylum in the UK are initially prohibited from working. However, the immigration rules allow for people seeking asylum to request permission to work if you have been waiting for more than 12 months on your asylum claim “through no fault of your own”. This may be 12 months after initially claiming asylum, or 12 months after submitting further submissions to be considered as a fresh claim.

The Migration Justice Project at the Law Centre NI has drafted a guide to help people seeking asylum understand how and whether they can apply for permission to work while their claim is pending. The guide is available in a number of languages: English, Tigrinya, Somali, Farsi, and Arabic. It includes information about applying for and receiving permission to work, what jobs you can apply for, applying for a National Insurance Number, and what this could all mean for your asylum support entitlement.

Right To Remain: Guide to work permission for asylum seekers by Migration Justice Project

 

Gambling Reform Reaches Final Stage

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has taken gambling reforms through the Final Stage of the legislative process which will see the most substantial changes to gambling law here in nearly 40 years. Minister Hargey said:

“Today sees the Bill complete its legislative passage through the Assembly. It will improve protection for children and young people through the creation of a new offence of inviting, causing or permitting a young person under 18 years to play a high stakes gaming machine.  It provides the creation of enabling powers to allow for a levy to be imposed on the industry as well as Codes of Practice. The Bill also provides increased opportunities for local charities, sports clubs and other voluntary groups to raise more money for good causes by increasing the maximum ticket price and simplifying the rules around deduction of expenses that apply to societies’ lotteries.”

More detail on the Bill is available here.

 

Chancellor’s Spring Statement

The Chancellor made his annual Spring Statement speech where he set out the Government’s Tax Plan. It brings together proposals to reduce and reform taxes over this Parliament to support the UK economy, businesses and families in both the short and the medium term. Key measures announced include:

  • an increase to the National Insurance Primary Threshold for Class 1 NICs and the Lower Profits Limit for Class 4 NICs from 6 July 2022, aligning it with the equivalent income tax personal allowance which is set at £12,570 per annum
  • from April 2022, self-employed individuals with profits between the Small Profits Threshold and the Lower Profit Limit will not pay Class 2 NICs, while allowing individuals to be able to continue to build National Insurance credits
  • Employment Allowance will increase by £1,000 from 6 April 2022 to £5,000, which will benefit around 495,000 businesses
  • an immediate reduction in duty on diesel and petrol from 6pm on 23 March 2022, by 5 pence per litre, for 12 months
  • a reduction in the basic rate of income tax to 19% from April 2024.

Responding to the Chancellor’s statement, Advice NI’s Chief Executive Bob Stronge said:

‘There is little in this Spring Statement for households and families, struggling with the cost of living crisis. Despite an acknowledgement that inflation is likely to rise to 7.4% this year, there was no movement on uprating Universal Credit and other means tested benefits, where the planned 3.1% increase will feel like a cut in terms of coping with rising bills and household costs. The Government’s own Office for budget responsibility states that the rise in inflation to a 40-year high this year, will reduce real household disposable incomes: leading to the biggest fall in living standards in any single financial year since records began. In that context we have to ask: ‘Is that it?’. Poverty, hardship and destitution will be the consequences of the Chancellor’s failure to act’.

Gov.UK: Spring Statement 2022 Documents
HM Treasurey: Spring Statement 2022
Advice NI "Is That It?" Advice NI responds to Chancellor's Spring Statement

 

Poverty In Northern Ireland Report

This report, by the Joseph Rowntree foundation, explores the rates of poverty in N.I., and assesses the impact poverty has. It also looks at the rates of relative poverty, compared to the rest of the UK.

JRF: Poverty in Northern Ireland 2022

 

Women In NI Report

The Women in NI 2020/21 publication was released on International Women’s Day 2022. The Women in Northern Ireland report is an annual publication of key labour market statistics for women in Northern Ireland. Please note statistics within this report are not adjusted for seasonality. The report shows that in 2021, women were more likely to be economically inactive, less likely to be self-employed or in full-time employment, and earn less on average, due to the gender pay gap.  This further illustrates the need for a robust social security system, as women are economically disadvantaged in Northern Ireland.

NISRA: Women in Northern Ireland 2020/2021

 

Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill

The Justice (Sexual Offences and Trafficking Victims) Bill passed its final stage in the NI Assembly.

NIAssembly: Final Stage: Human Trafficking and Exploitation Bill

 

Appeal Tribunals & PIP guidance

Tribunal of Northern Ireland Commissioners rules that appeal tribunals are not obliged to follow PIP guidance in the Advice for Decision Making Guide relating to fixed-term awards.

DT-v-Department for Communities (PIP) [2021] NICom 54

Decision No: C29/21-22(PIP)

The Commissioners separate the issues into three strands:

  • Adequacy of reasons given by the tribunal for making a fixed-term award;
  • The place of the guidance on fixed-term awards in the judicial decision making process;
  • Adequacy of the appeal tribunal’s reasons for the level of the award;

Communities NI: Personal Independence Payment

 

Protections For Private Renters

A Bill to protect tenants living in the private rented sector has been finalised. The Private Tenancies Bill increases protections for tenants in areas such as rent increases, safety checks, notice to quit periods and deposits, and lays the groundwork for further improvements in energy efficiency. Minister Hargey said:

“I will ensure we build further on the rent controls already secured.  This Bill will deliver important protections with more reform to come.  Everyone’s home should be safe.  Electrical safety checks and fire and carbon monoxide detectors, are basic safety requirements which have long been overdue. The Bill will provide enhanced protections for tenants when it comes to evictions."

The Minister also set out her ambitions for future reform in the sector on energy efficiency, fair rents, eviction rules and fitness standards.

NIAssembly: Private Tenancies Bill

 

Support For Private Tenants Facing A Shortfall In Their Rent

Changes to housing payments will mean more support for private tenants facing a shortfall in their rent and the housing support they currently receive. The changes to Discretionary Housing Payments (DHPs) will also mean that privately renting claimants who lost the £20 UC uplift and who receive Universal Credit (UC) housing costs, can have their DHP award reviewed and increased in line with the new rules. Anyone who has had a significant change in their income or circumstances can also have their payment reviewed. Minister Hargey said: “The changes I have approved will see a much more flexible approach to the awarding of Discretionary Housing Payments. Privately renting tenants in receipt of UC housing costs, who lost the £20 Universal Credit uplift, can have their payment reviewed and increased if eligible. I have removed the two year time limit on Discretionary Housing Payments and have made the 13-week protection payment for people new to benefits, a permanent fixture. The rate at which new awards are calculated will also be increased while a review will be carried out of all awards under £10 per week with those increased if appropriate.”

The Discretionary Housing Payment scheme, which is administered by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), will now be considered a long-term aid for those who require it which will help in sustaining tenancies. Existing entitlement to Housing Benefit or the housing costs element of Universal Credit (UC) is a qualifying condition. Awards from the Scheme are discretionary and each application is considered on its own merits.

Anyone requiring advice or assistance with making an application for a Discretionary Housing Payment should contact NIHE at Email: [email protected].

Phone: 03448 920 902 - Lines open 8.30am to 5pm Monday to Friday or by writing to: The Housing Centre, 2 Adelaide Street, Belfast, BT2 8PB

Communities NI: Communities Minister Hargey announces greater support for private tenants facing a shortfall in their rent

 

Charities call for minimum 7% Benefits rise

Prices are rising at the fastest rate in 30 years, and energy bills alone are going to rise by 54% in April…Policies such as the benefit cap, the benefit freeze and deductions have left many struggling. And although benefits will increase by 3.1% in April, inflation is projected to be 7.25% by then. This means a real-terms income cut just six months after the £20 per week cut to universal credit. A second cut to benefits in six months is unthinkable. The government should increase benefits by at least 7% in April to match inflation, and ensure support for housing costs increases in line with rents. All those struggling, including families affected by the benefit cap, must feel the impact. Advice NI and other charities are calling for a rise in benefits:

CPAG: Organisations Call For Minimum 7 Benefits Rise

 

Children with No Recourse to Public Funds

On 24 March 2022 the Minister for Children and Families made the welcome announcement in the House of Commons that the Department for Education would permanently extend eligibility for free school meals to children from all families with no recourse to public funds.

UK Parliament: Update on Children with No Recourse to Public Funds

It is hard to say at present whether this will be extended to Northern Ireland, as it would likely be reliant on the intervention of the Executive following the election, but we will continue to press the relevant ministers and departments for action. For the time being, eligibility for free school meals here remains limited to children of those on qualifying benefits, asylum seekers supported by the Home Office Asylum Support Assessment Team (ASAT) and children with special needs that require a special diet.

EA: Free School Meals / Uniform Grant Eligibility

 

Child Funeral Fund

Communities Minister Hargey outlined her plans to bring forward a Child Funeral Fund. Announcing the establishment of the Child Funeral Fund Minister Hargey said, “The Child Funeral Fund will support families at a time of devastation and sadness in their lives and help ease the financial pressures that can come with the death of a child. The Fund will not be means-tested meaning it is available to everyone in the north regardless of their financial status. My officials have worked to ensure the application process is simple so that no additional burden or stress is caused to bereaved families.”

A one-off lump sum payment of £3,056 will be payable from the fund to help families with the cost of a funeral on the death of a child under 18 or in the event of a still birth after 24 weeks.

NIExecutive: Hargey announces establishment of Child Funeral Fund

 

Parental Bereavement Legislation

The Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Bill (Northern Ireland) 2022 received Royal Assent. The new Act includes provisions that will bring Northern Ireland support for bereaved parents in line with GB regulations.

Legislation.gov: Parental Bereavement Act 2022

 

Discretionary Support Review

The findings of an independent review of Discretionary Support have been published by the Department for Communities. An independent panel of experts was appointed by Minister Hargey last year to complete a comprehensive review of the Discretionary Support scheme - which provides emergency financial support to people on low incomes - and to make recommendations for improvements. The panel, which was chaired by Professor Grainne McKeever of Ulster University and engaged with users of the service and their representatives in a co-design approach. Minister Hargey said:

“The Discretionary Support scheme provides support to some of the most vulnerable people in our society but I want to do more…I will consider the panel’s detailed recommendations and will continue work on improving and developing timely and targeted support for those who find themselves in extreme situations.”

In the conclusion, the panel highlights:

‘There remains a strong need for all government departments to play a stronger role in supporting needs that arise in their respective policy areas, but that end up at the door of discretionary support. This remedial measure will be more effective in meeting need than the palliative response through discretionary support. It is the panel’s view that discretionary support should not have to carry the load that it is carrying but while this remains the case, we make our recommendations in the hope that those who most need support through discretionary support will be better able to get it.'

The links below are to the report and press release:

Communities NI: Independent panel’s findings into Discretionary Support scheme published
Communities NI: Discretionary Support Independent Review
Communities NI: Independent Review of Discretionary Support

 

Provision Of Free Broadband

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has announced the provision of free broadband for those facing digital exclusion as a barrier to work. The broadband support package will be available to eligible jobseekers through the Department for Communities’ Adviser Discretion Fund, a grant fund available to help remove barriers to employment that prevent people moving towards and into employment Minister Hargey said: “Digital exclusion has been one of the inequalities thrown into sharper focus by the Covid-19 pandemic. More than ever, employers are posting vacancies online, with many having moved to online interviewing and more positions requiring people to work from home.

Therefore, not having access to broadband can be a significant barrier to searching for, or moving into, employment.  I am tackling this by providing free broadband support which will provide broadband for eligible jobseekers who do not currently have the service.”

Support for broadband through the Adviser Discretion Fund is available for a period of six months. The Fund can provide a non-repayable grant of up to £1,500, in a 12 month period, to remove barriers to employment.

NIExecutive: Communities Minister Hargey tackles digital exclusion through provision of free broadband

 

Increase To Small Claims Court Limit

Justice Minister Naomi Long has announced that the upper limit for claims which can be heard in the small claims court is to be increased.

From 3 October 2022, the maximum value of a claims which can be heard in the small claims court will increase from the current level of £3,000 to £5,000.

The increase was brought forward following consideration of responses to a public consultation on increasing the general civil jurisdiction of the county court. Legal provision for the increase was made today by the signing of the County Courts (Financial Limits) Order (Northern Ireland) 2022.

Justice NI: Long announces increase to small claims court limit

 

Test, Trace & Protect To Prioritise Most Vulnerable

The Minister announced that a more targeted approach to testing will be introduced on a phased basis from next month, with the focus on supporting and protecting those at highest risk of serious illness. 

Under the new policy, PCR testing will cease for most people with symptoms from 22 April - however free lateral flow tests will continue to be available to the public to use should they develop symptoms of COVID-19. Lateral flow tests will also continue to be available free of charge to support those living in, working in or visiting a higher risk setting such as a care home until the end of June, with further review then.

Health NI: Test, Trace and Protect to prioritise most vulnerable

 

State Pension LEAP Written Statement

I wish to update the House on the State Pension correction activity that is addressing historical errors, that were unaddressed by successive Governments. We are fully committed to ensuring that any historical errors are addressed as quickly as possible, to ensure that individuals receive the State Pension they are rightfully due in law.

As of 28 February 2022, we have undertaken 58,809 reviews, repaid £94.3m, and informed individuals of how much they will be receiving in arrears and the reasons for the change to their State Pension rate. (More details will be available in the publication on gov.uk.)

The Department now has a dedicated team of over 500 people working on the correction activity and, recognising the scale and complexity of the activity, we will continue recruiting.

UK Parliament: State Pension LEAP

Information Officer Updates

Support for Ukrainians

In response to the war in Ukraine, we have produced an information briefing outlining the easements in the area of immigration and access to public funds for persons fleeing the conflict. The briefing also includes links to relevant supporting services and advice agencies.

Advice NI: Advice NI Information Briefing Support for Ukrainians
 
Easements include amending legislation exempting relevant persons from the habitual residence test for Income Support, Jobseeker's Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Universal Credit, Pension Credit and Housing Benefit, as well as from the habitual residence and past presence tests for Personal Independence Payment, Disability Living Allowance, Carer's Allowance, and Attendance Allowance. Similar legislation has also been introduced opening access to Child Benefit, as well as housing and homelessness assistance.

 

Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

My Rt Hon friend the Home Secretary is today laying before the House a Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules.

The changes reflect our commitments to Ukraine and the main changes are as follows:

We are now formally bringing the Ukraine Family Scheme, launched on 4 March 2022; the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme launched on 18 March 2022; and a new Ukraine Extension Scheme, which will launch on 3 May 2022 into the Immigration Rules.

These new routes show the UK stands shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and its citizens. The changes we have made to the visa process are making it quicker and simpler for Ukrainians to come here, as well as ensuring those already here can stay.

A Ukrainian national who is an immediate or extended family member of a person in the UK who is a British citizen, settled in the UK, or who has certain types of limited leave can come to the UK under the Ukraine Family Scheme if they were resident in Ukraine immediately before 1 January 2022. They can also bring their immediate family members to the UK.

A person who meets these requirements who is already in the UK can also apply to stay, so long as they have permission to be in the UK (except as a visitor), or if their permission to stay has recently ended.

Immediate and extended family members include married, civil and durable partners, fiancé(e)s or proposed civil partners, parents (of a person both under and over 18 years old), grandparents, grandchildren, children (both under and over 18 years of age), siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, and in-laws, as well as their immediate family members (partner, parents and children).

A Ukrainian national and their immediate family members can come to the UK under the Homes for Ukraine (Sponsorship Scheme) if they were resident in Ukraine immediately before 1 January 2022 and have an Approved sponsor in the UK who has agreed to provide them with accommodation for at least 6 months.

A Ukrainian national and their partner and children who had permission to stay in the UK on 18 March 2022 (or which has expired since 1 January 2022) can stay in the UK under the Ukraine Extension Scheme.

All the routes are free.

Applicants must also meet suitability requirements and under the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme the sponsor and anyone else living in the accommodation will be subject to security checks.

People applying for entry clearance who have a valid Ukrainian passport are able to start their application overseas, and, if they appear to be eligible, they will be permitted to travel to the UK and granted permission to enter for 6 months on arrival, and they can complete their application for 3 years’ permission to stay by providing biometrics in the UK.

Successful applicants will be granted permission to stay in the UK with full access to work, study and public funds.

Due to the importance of providing the certainty reflected in these rules, they will come into effect on 30 March 2022 for the Ukraine Family Scheme and the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme; and 3 May 2022 for the Ukraine Extension Scheme.

UK Parliament: Statement of Changes in Immigration Rules

 

The Risk Review Team

Following an increase in enquiries from clients, we have also published a briefing on the work of the Risk Review Team, which is a Department for Work and Pensions-based fraud investigation unit that have been responsible for the suspension of a large number of claims due to issues around the identity documents supplied by foreign national claimants.

There is scant information in the public domain relating to the procedures and goals of the Risk Review Team, and we are grateful for the determined questioning of the opposition MP, Kate Osamor. The briefing draws together the published responses from the government to her written questions on this issue, and references a debate she secured in the Commons on [date].

Our engagement with Universal Credit on this issue demonstrates that the Department for Communities have little influence on the work of this team, but advisers are strongly encouraged to continue to raise these cases through the relevant channels, and to make the Policy & Information team aware of those cases so that we can continue to press the Departments both here and in Great Britain for an improvement to procedures and processing times in this area.

Advice NI: The Risk Review Team

NI Assembly Questions

Charity Sector: Support

Mrs Barton asked the Minister for Communities how she will support the charity sector, in the absence of a First Minister and deputy First Minister. (AQO 3224/17-22)

Ms Hargey: All Departments provide funding to charities to help to deliver our Programme for Government outcomes, and we will continue to do so in the absence of our First Ministers. As the strategic lead in the Executive for those sectors, I made nearly £90 million of Executive COVID support and recovery funding available in the 2021-22 financial year to charities, social enterprises and the wider voluntary and community sectors, including culture, languages, arts, heritage and sports organisations….

I have made £1·5 million of funding available to existing European social fund (ESF) projects that are continuing into 2022-23….I have also made £43 million of Executive COVID recovery funding available in this financial year. Some £23 million is to help organisations to manage their financial positions where they have COVID-related deficits. Up to £20 million will be used to support salary costs…

I am considering the independent review of charity regulation in the North to ensure that our system of regulation is appropriate, proportionate and provides public confidence. The most recent Charities Bill 2022 is awaiting Royal Assent, having passed its Final Stage in the Assembly. That will restore the regulatory framework following the McBride judgement, thereby providing certainty for over 6,500 charities.

Mrs Barton: Many charities provide an essential service, particularly in rural areas. Have you had any conversations with the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to support those charities and work with them in rural areas with regard to phone calls in the morning and things like that?

Ms Hargey: There has been good collaboration with DAERA and the Department for Infrastructure in looking at the needs of rural communities. We came up with a bespoke COVID recovery revitalisation programme that was targeted at those rural communities, and we continue to engage with those Departments…

As the Member said, our charities have been excellent throughout the COVID pandemic in responding to people. In the Warm, Well and Connected programme that we ran in the Department, those charities really stepped up to the plate in working with us to meet the needs of rural residents and in looking at the issue of isolation, connectivity and, particularly, mental health and well-being….We need to look at legislative protection. I will continue to work with DAERA and DFI around rural infrastructure to look at what we can do to further support them. The collaborative approach where we brought money together from the three Departments was good, and I have written to them to see how we can develop that and keep that approach going.

Mr Delargy: Minister, will you provide an update on the uptake of the COVID-19 charities fund, which was set up to help to protect that sector during the pandemic?

Ms Hargey: Funding has gone out during the COVID pandemic. There has been over £130 million of additional support, and over 9,000 awards have been made to individuals and organisations to mitigate the worst financial impacts of the pandemic….The first fund has been going well, and the second fund that we opened recently has also been drawing down well for many charity organisations across the board.

We continue to work with the charities sector on recent legislation that we passed around regulation on the back of the McBride judgement in 2019. On the independent review of charity regulation and support, there was good, extensive engagement with the independent panel that was set up. It had good engagement with charities and looked at their needs going forward. I am hopeful that, in the next mandate, on the basis of that review, we can bring forward more robust legislation that further protects and enhances the work of that sector.

 

Community and Voluntary Sector

AQW 30253/17-22 Mr Mark Durkan (SDLP - Foyle)

To ask the Minister for Communities, pursuant to AQW 28823/17-22, whether staff within the Community and Voluntary Sector will receive a salary and pension backdated payment.

In line with my announcement of 15 December 2021, voluntary and community organisations have been provided with funding to enable them as employers, to improve the salary and pension terms for posts directly funded by my Department.

I can confirm that this additional funding support was issued between 16th December 2021 and 21st December 2021, whilst the improvements were effective from 1 April 2021.

 

Energy Payment Support Scheme

AQW 30000/17-22 Mr Andy Allen (UUP - East Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities what support she will make available for people who do not meet the criteria of the Energy Payment Support Scheme.

My Department currently offers the following support:

Affordable Warmth Scheme is available to low-income owner-occupiers and households in the private rented sector with an income of under £23,000 and includes multiple measures such as cavity wall insulation, installation of gas or oil, boiler replacement, replacement windows.

Boiler Replacement Scheme provides a grant of up to £1,000 towards the cost of replacing old and inefficient boilers over 15 years old. This is open to owner-occupiers with a household income of less than £40,000.

Winter Fuel payment is a tax free and non means tested benefit which is paid annually to eligible older people. The rate payable is between £100 and £300 depending on personal circumstances, to help people pay their heating bills.

Cold Weather Payments Scheme provides a one off payment of £25 to the elderly, disabled and those with children under 5 years old in periods of severe weather, which is automatically triggered once the relevant temperature criteria are met.

The Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme will operate from 6 January to 31 March 2022 and my Department has contributed £2m to support this Scheme. It will provide immediate support of up to £100 worth of electric, gas or oil to people experiencing an emergency fuel crisis.

Discretionary Support is an award of short-term financial help to assist with additional expenditure for fuel costs if a person is in an extreme, exceptional or crisis situation.

Finance Support Services including Universal Credit Contingency Fund, Discretionary Support self-isolation grants, Social Fund budgeting loans and Sure Start maternity grants are also available.

Further information on eligibility for financial support can be found at NI Direct: Extra Financial Support.

 

Emergency Fuel Payment

AQW 30145/17-22 Ms Claire Sugden (IND - East Londonderry)

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail (i) the number of people currently waiting to receive their £100 emergency fuel payment; and (ii) how applicants can check the progress of their application.

The Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme is being operated by Bryson Care. This is not a Department for Communities scheme. Bryson Care have advised that, in line with the objectives of the scheme, all complete applications are processed within an average of 24hours and for those assessed as eligible delivery of the fuel supply is within a further 24 hours. All applicants are notified by Bryson Care on completion of the assessment process. The notification is subject to the applicants preference; text, email or landline.

 

Support For Those Not In Receipt Of Benefits

AQO 3225/17-22 Ms Claire Sugden (IND - East Londonderry)

To ask the Minister for Communities to outline her plans to support families struggling with rising living costs, who do not qualify for benefits.

My Department offers a range of schemes to support families struggling with rising living costs, and will continue to keep this under constant review. This includes help to improve the energy efficiency of homes through the Affordable Warmth and Boiler Replacement Schemes.

Financial support to help people with fuel costs is provided through the Winter Fuel Payment, paid to eligible older people, as well as through the Emergency Fuel Payment Scheme which will provide immediate support of up to one hundred pounds (£100) worth of electricity, gas or oil to eligible people experiencing an emergency fuel crisis.

The Discretionary Support Scheme provides interest free loans and non-repayable grants to people experiencing financial difficulties to help meet urgent living expense needs or provide essential household items. This is available to anyone whose annual income is below the annual income threshold regardless of whether they are in receipt of benefits.

My Department has been running a Social Supermarket pilot programme since 2017 at five sites to support those in or at risk of food poverty. A social supermarket aims to address the causes of food poverty through the provision of wraparound support, alongside food provision to meet immediate need, and entitlement to benefits is not a requirement to access this service.

 

Jobs and Benefits Offices: Pre-pandemic Services

Ms Armstrong asked the Minister for Communities when jobs and benefits offices will return to pre-pandemic operating levels facilitating face-to-face drop-in visits between staff and claimants. (AQO 3222/17-22)

Ms Hargey: On 5 May 2021, jobs and benefits offices reopened for people on a one-in, one-out appointment basis. That was extended to multiple appointments in the autumn of last year. Face-to-face services continue to be prioritised for vulnerable groupings: young people aged 18-24; those not engaging using telephone or digital channels; and those who need to verify their identity to make a new claim.
Concern about the COVID omicron variant has meant that plans for the wider resumption of services, which include opening digital zones and offering a drop-in service, have been put temporarily on hold. My Department, in conjunction with other Departments, is considering the COVID-19 measures that are in place throughout its workplaces, in line with Public Health Agency (PHA) advice. While face-to-face services continue to be constrained by measures such as social distancing, jobs and benefits offices are using other service delivery channels, such as video, telephone and digital, to ensure that people requiring assistance are supported.

Ms Armstrong: I thank the Minister for her response. Minister, on, I think, 24 February, you announced the launch of labour market partnerships (LMPs) for council areas. Can you confirm how those new labour market partnerships will work with our jobs and benefits offices?

Ms Hargey: Labour market partnerships are a new approach, working through the 11 councils. Rather than have just regional programmes, LMPs are tailored to meet the needs of each council area. I recently visited Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon (ABC) Borough Council, which was the first to undertake the programme and put forward its proposals. Councils will meet regularly as part of a regional group that will tie in all local labour market partnerships directly with the Department. The LMPs will have ongoing engagement and liaison with the Department, and not just with jobs and benefits offices but across the Department…..We are working with the remaining councils to get their action plans and priorities in place. It is an exciting programme, and we look forward to seeing the roll-out and the impact that it will have at a local level.

 

Adviser Discretion Fund

AQW 30720/17-22 Ms Nicola Brogan (SF - West Tyrone)

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail (i) the number of people who have been supported with initial upfront childcare costs through the Advisor Discretion Fund, since it was extended in October 2020; (ii) the number of people who have submitted a claim and been rejected; (iii) the average amount of support that has been awarded; and (iv) the average length of time it has taken to process an application for support.

During the period 25 October 2021 to 9 March 2022, my Department has:

  • supported 189 customers;
  • rejected no applications as eligibility is established by discussion between the customer and their Work Coach before an application is made;
  • awarded an average of £550; and
  • taken an average of 14 calendar days to process an application for support.

 

PIP Appeals

AQW 30446/17-22 Ms Clare Bailey (GPNI - South Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities what is the average time taken from a request being made for an appeal of a decision on an application for Personal Independence Payment to the appeal being heard.

The average time taken from a request being made for an appeal of a decision on an application for Personal Independence Payment to the appeal being heard is 26.42 weeks.

 

Bereavement Service

AQW 30274/17-22 Ms Carál Ní Chuilín (SF - North Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail the (i) funding of; (ii) eligibility criteria for; and (iii) services provided by, the Bereavement Service.

The Bereavement Service is a freephone service for people to report a death to the Department for Communities if the deceased person is in receipt of a social security benefit. This enables the Department to record and verify the date of death and notify all relevant benefit paying offices.

The Bereavement Service also offers the caller an eligibility check for a Funeral Expenses Payment and/or a Bereavement Support Payment. Funeral Payments are classified as Departmental Expenditure Limit funded from the Executive’s Block Grant, whilst Bereavement Support Payments are classified as Annually Managed Expenditure directly funded by the Treasury.

The eligibility criteria for both payments is available to view on the NI Direct website.

Parliamentary Questions

Risk Review

Kate Osamor, Labour UIN 137398

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether the Risk Review Team provides a full explanation detailing the reasons behind a decision when a decision is made that a claimant isn't entitled to benefits and an overpayment is issued.

David Rutley, Conservative:

For every overpayment decision made the customer will receive details of the reason for the overpayment.

**Note: The answer does not refer to customer receiving a full explanation detailing reasons behind the decision.

 

Increasing benefits in line with Living Costs

Alan Brown, Scottish National Party UIN 118567

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what assessment the Government has made of the effect of increasing benefits in line with living costs on levels of child poverty.

David Rutley, Conservative:

The Secretary of State undertakes an annual review of benefits and pensions based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which measures inflation in the year to September, as has been the case since April 1987.

This Government is committed to reducing poverty and supporting low-income families, and believes work is the best route out of poverty. Our approach is based on clear evidence about the importance of parental employment - particularly where it is full-time – in substantially reducing the risks of child poverty and in improving long-term outcomes for families and children. In 2019/20, children in households where all adults were in work, were around six times less likely to be in absolute poverty (before housing costs) than children in a household where nobody works. Compared with 2010, there were almost 1 million fewer workless households and almost 580,000 fewer children living in workless households in the UK in September 2021.

We are giving the lowest earners a pay rise by increasing the National Living Wage by 6.6% to £9.50 from April 2022, and making permanent changes to Universal Credit, worth £1000 a year on average, to two million in-work claimants….

We recognise that some people require extra support over the winter, which is why vulnerable households across the country are now able to access a £500 million support fund to help them with essentials. The Household Support Fund provides £421 million to help vulnerable people in England with the cost of food, utilities and wider essentials. The Barnett Formula applies in the usual way, with the devolved administrations receiving almost £80 million. The Barnett Formula will apply in the usual way, with the devolved administrations receiving almost £80 million (£41m for the Scottish Government, £25m for the Welsh Government and £14m for the NI Executive), for a total of £500 million.

 

Carers Allowance

Colleen Fletcher, Labour UIN 142004

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what recent assessment she has made of the adequacy of Carers Allowance payments to support unpaid carers meet the increased costs of living.

Chloe Smith, Conservative

The Government recognises people are facing pressures with the cost of living which is why we are providing support worth over £22 billion across this financial year and next. On carers specifically, the Government continues to provide financial support to unpaid carers through Carer’s Allowance, the Carer Element in Universal Credit and through other benefits.

Real terms expenditure on Carer’s Allowance is forecast to be £3.1bn in 2021/22 and between 2021/22 and 2026/27 is forecast to increase by two-fifths (around £1.3 billion). By 2026/27, the Government is forecast to spend just under £4.4 billion a year on Carer’s Allowance.

The weekly rate of Carer’s Allowance will increase to £69.70 in April 2022. This means that since 2010 it will have increased from £53.90 to £69.70 a week, providing an additional £800 a year for carers through Carer’s Allowance. The Government has chosen to focus extra support on those carers who need it most. Around 360,000 carer households on Universal Credit can receive an additional £1,965 a year through the Carer Element. This amount will increase from April 2022.