'THINK' POLICY NEWSLETTER - Christmas Edition 2022

Welcome to this bumper Christmas edition of ‘THINK’, which as usual contains all the latest policy news, information and updates.

As we come to the end of another year, I would like to take this opportunity to flag some of the work of the Policy & Information Team over the last 6 months, working closely in partnership with the whole of the independent advice network.

We identified several new trends from data and engagement with the network and lobbied for action with politicians, civil servants and fellow campaigners:

  • Cost of living crisis;
  • Sanctions;
  • Overpayment deductions;
  • PIP renewal disallowances;
  • Benefit uprating options;
  • Ongoing Universal Credit issues;
  • Appeal tribunal delays.

This has led to a number of key social policy campaigns, with press releases on the ‘Move to UC’, social security and income adequacy, the cost of living crisis interventions and benefit uprating in line with inflation (as opposed to one-off lump sums). At the same time, we continue to promote our Policy Manifesto for the NI Assembly elections (now more relevant than ever!) and Community Wealth Building, incorporating the Real Living Wage.

Our publications were wide-ranging and incisive. This has included evidence-based inputs to consultations on the reform of adult social care, health assessment processes in benefits, UK compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the cost of living. We have also published a number of briefing papers on issues relevant to front-line advisers – including managed migration to Universal Credit, benefit overpayments and discretionary waivers, cost of living resources, child poverty and sustainable energy – and continue to share the latest updates through monthly editions of this very newsletter. All our publications can be accessed through the policy section of the Advice NI website.

I have been keen for us to consider more evidence-based, solution research and policy propositions, and so far this year we have analysed data on surviving the cost of living crisis, combining benefit uprating in line with inflation and local schemes such as targeted income maximisation campaigns, as well as carrying out ‘Move to UC’ data analysis and developing a report on the impact of this policy in NI (my thanks to all contributors to the adviser and claimant surveys).

The whole team has been active in the media, with 326 social media contributions garnering some 152.4k impressions and 25 separate media appearances, including BBC radio, television and online, ensuring the independent advice network remains visible and active in the key policy debates.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we have responded to 157 complex case queries from front-line advisers, and we encourage you to continue bringing these to our attention as they play an enormous role in ensuring the effectiveness of our policy and information output. Impossible to list all of the issues addressed, but some of the most important covered:

  • Welfare Supplementary Payments overpayments;
  • Severe Disability Premium underpayment, recouping £5k for client;
  • Correction of fit notes issue, recouping £4k for the client;
  • Housing Benefit suspended incorrectly;
  • PIP & NINO for RoI client;
  • ESA medical assessment;
  • ESA & PIP interpreting services;
  • NHS Recognition payment and UC;
  • PIP escalation, from no award to Enhanced Daily Living & Enhanced Mobility;
  • Scam texts purportedly from DfC/DWP;
  • Resolution of 2 mixed-age couples cases;
  • Cost of Living Payment clarification.

A busy time and much more to be done!
Thank you to the team (Bridget, Charlotte, and Matt) for all their hard work, passion, dedication and fun, thank you to all the advisers in Advice NI and across the network, and to all THiNK readers, wishing you all a happy, restful, healthy break and looking forward to going again in the New Year with batteries recharged and passion undimmed…
Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy

Issue in Focus: Cost of Living

Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

On 7 December Advice NI Head of Policy Kevin Higgins gave evidence to the NI Affairs Committee on Cost of Living in Northern Ireland, alongside Peter McClenaghan from the Consumer Council and Jamie Miller from the NI Fuel Poverty Coalition. You can view video of the session online at parliamentlive.tv:

NI Affairs Committee: Cost of Living in Northern Ireland

Full details of the session, including transcripts and written evidence, are also available:

Formal meeting (oral evidence session): Cost of Living in Northern Ireland
Written evidence: Cost of Living in Northern Ireland


Chancellor’s Autumn Statement: Key Points

On 17 November the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Jeremy Hunt, delivered his Autumn budget statement to the House of Commons, with the main focus on the rising cost of living:

  • State pension payments, Pension Credit, working age and disability benefits to increase by 10.1% from April 2023, in line with inflation.
  • Extension of Cost of Living Payments, with households on means-tested benefits to get further £900 support during 2022-23.
  • Energy Price Guarantee to continue for a further 12 months from April 2023, although typical bill to rise to £3,000 per year.
  • UK national living wage for people over 23 to increase from £9.50 to £10.42 an hour from next April.
  • Income tax personal allowance and higher rate thresholds frozen for further two years, until April 2028.
  • Main National Insurance and inheritance tax thresholds also frozen for further two years, until April 2028.

Full details of the cost of living measures are provided in the updated Cost of living support factsheet:
Cost of living support Factsheet
BBC: Autumn Statement 2022: Key points at-a-glance
The Autumn Statement 2022 speech


Alternative Fuels Payment Enhanced

Another announcement from the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement was that all households in Northern Ireland will now receive the Alternative Fuels Payment to help with energy costs, with the amount provided to be doubled to £200. Originally set at £100 and available only to people who would not benefit from the Energy Price Guarantee due to their use of an alternative fuel source, such as home heating oil, the Treasury has now said the Alternative Fuels Payment will be a universal payment here "in recognition of the prevalence of alternative fuel usage in Northern Ireland". The payment is expected to be made as a credit to electricity accounts alongside the Energy Bills Support Scheme, but it is not clear as yet when it will be paid. Limited official information about the Alternative Fuels Payment is available online, but we will continue to monitor this issue and update the Advice NI website once more is announced.

Advice NI: Energy Bills Support
BBC: Autumn Statement: All NI households to get £200 heating oil payment
Gov.uk: Vital Help With Energy Bills On The Way For Millions More Homes Across Great Britain And NI


Energy Bills Support To Be Delivered In January

Having previously advised that payments to Northern Ireland households through the Energy Bills Support Scheme and Alternative Fuels Payment would begin in November, Westminster is now advising that this will not be issued until January 2023. The money had been due to go to households as a credit to their electricity bill, but the Northern Ireland Office have now confirmed that both payments will be made together in a single payment.

Direct debit customers will receive a direct payment form their supplier into their nominated bank account. Other customers will receive a voucher, with further details of this part of the process to be announced in due course. Please keep an eye on our website for further information.

Vital help with energy bills on the way for millions more homes across Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Advice NI: Cost of Living: Energy Bills Support


Benefit Uprating

Perhaps the most positive outcome of the Autumn Statement for our clients was the announcement that benefits and pensions would rise in line with inflation, by 10.1%, from April 2023. This has since been confirmed officially to the House of Commons by both the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury in line with their statutory duties.

Mel Stride, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, told the Commons:

“The full rate of the new State Pension will increase from £185.15 to £203.85 a week. The basic State Pension will increase from £141.85 to £156.20 a week. The Standard Minimum Guarantee for a couple in Pension Credit will increase from £278.70 to £306.85 a week. The enhanced rate of the daily living component of Personal Independence Payment will increase from £92.40 to £101.75 a week. The Universal Credit standard allowance for a couple where one or both are over 25 will increase from £525.72 to £578.82 a month; the Limited Capability for Work and Work-Related Activity amount will increase from £354.28 to £390.06 a month; and the child element for those born on or after 6 April 2017 will increase from £244.58 to £269.58 a month.”

It is important to note that the associated increase in the equivalent benefits in Northern Ireland will need to be confirmed by regulatory procedures in the Assembly in order to apply here, which will not happen until the political crisis is resolved.

With regard to HMRC-administered benefits, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen, announced that:

“The majority of elements and thresholds in working tax credit and child tax credit, including all disability elements, will increase by 10.1% from 6 April 2023. This means, for example, that the basic element of working tax credit will increase from £2,070 to £2,280 per year. In line with established practice and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s expectations in their welfare forecast, the maximum rate of the childcare element, the family element, the withdrawal rate and disregards in tax credits will remain unchanged.

All rates of child benefit, plus guardian’s allowance, will increase by 10.1 % from 10 April 2023. This means, for example, that the child benefit rate for the eldest child will increase from £21.80 to £24 per week.
The new rates will apply across the United Kingdom.”

Social Security Update (UIN HCWS374)
Tax Credits & Child Benefit: Review of Rates (UIN HCWS372)


Cost of Food

A debate on the rising cost of food was held in Westminster Hall on 14 December. With the ONS reporting inflation on food and drink at 16.2% in October – estimated to be the highest it has been since September 1977 – it is unsurprising that this is a significant driver of hardship for those on the lowest incomes. Ian Byrne, Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby, introduced the debate:

“Like many Members present, I have been contacted by constituents who have never been so scared about their future and their situation. We have workers in almost every industry taking strike action as a last resort, because work does not pay and does not meet rising costs, such as those for food. In West Derby, there are nurses, educators, firefighters, postal workers, rail staff and civil servants using food banks. What have we become?

This is one of the gravest and most frightening crises seen in our lifetimes, and my constituents tell me they feel abandoned and ignored by the Government, whose job it is to protect them—a Government who commissioned the national food strategy and ignored it when it reported back. For all the report’s shortcomings, its author, Henry Dimbleby, attempted to answer some of the failings in Government policy and proposed changes that would have immediately lifted many people out of food poverty if they had been implemented.”

Video and a transcript of the debate are available online, and the House of Commons Library produced a debate pack ahead of the debate which includes links to a range of relevant information.

Westminster Hall Debate: Cost of food
Hansard: Cost of Food
House of Commons Library: The cost of food


House of Commons Library Resources

The House of Commons Library has produced two helpful resources on the cost of living crisis, one collating publications on the rising cost of living in the UK, addressing issues such as the causes of inflation, the effect on households, and Government support, and another summarising the rules and payment arrangements for the Cost of Living Payments.

Research on the increasing cost of living and inflation
Cost of Living Payments: Overview and FAQs


Law Centre NI Cost of Living Guide

Law Centre NI has published a new Cost of Living Guide to help individuals and families in the coming months. The guide is comprehensive and brings together details of the benefits, grants and schemes that are available to help people in Northern Ireland to maximise their household income and deal with financial difficulties that they may be facing.

Cost of Living Guide


Cost of Living Payment Challenge

Law Centre NI and the Public Interest Litigation Support (PILS) Project is bringing a judicial review against a decision to deny a homeless client access to a Low Income Cost of Living Payment. The client was denied the payment as a result of moving into temporary accommodation and thereby losing entitlement to Universal Credit.

Anyone supporting clients who have been denied a Cost of Living Payment on similarly unfair grounds are encouraged to get in touch with the Policy & Information Team for guidance and support.

Law Centre NI challenges decision to deny Cost of Living payment to homeless client
The PILS Project: Cost of living payment refusal to be challenged by Law Centre NI


Designation of Energy Price Eduction Scheme

New regulations have been issued to designate the Energy Price Guarantee as the 'domestic electricity price and gas price reduction scheme in Northern Ireland' for the purposes of the Energy Prices Act 2022.

Energy Prices (Designated Domestic Price Reduction Schemes) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2022
Energy Price Guarantee: scheme documents


Free School Lunches & Uniform Grants

Information on support with the costs of education is available online at NIDirect and the Education Authority website.

Nutrition and school lunches
School uniform and uniform grants
Free School Meals / Uniform Grants

Social Policy News

JSA and SDPs: Transitional Payments

Following an enquiry from Community Advice Ards and North Down we engaged with DfC about entitlement to transition protection for clients required to move from Jobseeker’s Allowance to Universal Credit when the Severe Disability Premium is in payment. In response we received the following detailed guidance on when transitional protection will be included in the subsequent award of UC:

“A person can get SDP elements with JSA if they are in receipt of higher rate DLA/PIP and this does not affect their ability to work. There are not significant numbers of people claiming JSA and receiving SDP. Those claiming JSA can submit a sick line for up to 13 weeks, as in this case, and still receive JSA. However, if they remain sick after the initial 13 weeks, they can no longer claim or be entitled to JSA which means that they may claim UC. If they wish to remain on JSA they must declare themselves fit for work.

For those claiming JSA and receiving the Severe Disability Premium (SDP): a change to the Universal Credit (Managed Migration and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 on 27 January 2021 means that people in receipt of SDP as part of a legacy benefit, e.g. JSA (IB), are able to make a new claim to Universal Credit and be entitled to a transitional SDP element, providing they continue to meet the SDP qualifying criteria.  The amount paid will be shown on their statement as a separate amount under the heading “What you’re entitled to” as “Transitional protection”.

Notably in terms of JSA only, a Severe Disability Premium (SDP) is payable to severely disabled people claiming JSA (IB) i.e. not contribution based JSA only.

As with all transitional protections, the transitional SDP element is not time limited but will erode as the amount paid for other components of Universal Credit increase or another component, such as support with housing costs, is added.  When this happens, the transitional SDP element will erode pound for pound with the increase to the Universal Credit maximum amount. Once the transitional SDP element has eroded, it cannot be re-instated, except where there has been a recalculation or successful appeal.

It is also important to note that the transitional SDP element will end in the following circumstances: couples forming, couples ending, where an increase in Universal Credit is greater than the amount of transitional payment in payment, the claimant has earnings equal to or above the Administrative Earnings Threshold (AET) in their first assessment period and the claimant’s earnings then drop below the AET for more than 3 assessment periods at any time during the Universal Credit claim, or their Universal Credit claim is terminated.

The only one exception to this is when a claimant has an increase in household earnings that means their Universal Credit payment is nil and they are no longer entitled to Universal Credit. In these cases, if they re-claim within 3 assessment periods of their claim being terminated, the transitional payments will be re-instated.”

For further clarification on entitlement to the transitional SDP element, please see the relevant section of the Advice for Decision Making Guide and associated regulations below. If you encounter cases where these rules are not being applied correctly by the Department, we would be keen to hear from you.

ADM Chapter M2: Effects of transition to Universal Credit (PDF)
The Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 (PDF)


Benefit Sanctions

A debate on DWP policy on benefit sanctions took place in Westminster Hall on 13 December. Scottish National Party MP Chris Stephens opened the debate:

“Sanctions appear to be back with a vengeance, and that shift of approach requires parliamentary scrutiny. As someone who believes that conditionality has not worked, I think we need a change in approach to put the claimant and their needs at the heart of the social security system.”

Video and a transcript of the debate are available online, and the House of Commons Library also published a research briefing ahead of the session, which covers a wide range of policy views.
Westminster Hall Debate: DWP policy on benefit sanctions
Hansard: Benefit Sanctions
Department for Work and Pensions policy on benefit sanctions
In associated news, the DWP has released the latest quarterly statistics on the number of sanctions imposed on people who receive JSA, ESA (WRAG), IS or UC in England, Scotland and Wales up to July 2022. This will be the last release to include statistics on legacy benefit sanctions, partly due to the very low proportion of sanctions imposed on recipients of those benefits. In Universal Credit, the latest series has seen the first reduction in the proportion of awards sanctioned since the reintroduction of conditionality post-pandemic, although the drop is small and sanction rates remain substantially higher than pre-Covid on all measures.
DWP: Benefit sanctions statistics
DWP: Benefit sanctions statistics to July 2022 (experimental)
Limited sanction statistics for Northern Ireland are included in the latest statistical releases from the DfC. In Universal Credit, there were 830 people subject to a sanction, a rapid rise since the reintroduction of work search and work availability requirements at the start of the year. Comparing this with the figures for number of claimants subject to the relevant conditionality regimes allows us to estimate a sanction rate of a little over 2%. Sanction statistics for legacy benefits are not published by the Department for Communities.
DfC: Universal Credit Statistics - August 2022
NISRA: Universal Credit Publication: Data to 31 August 2022
The Policy & Information Team continues to engage with the Department on this important issue, with a productive session held with Universal Credit for frontline advisers in November, and further information resources in development.


Interest Rates Rise

The Bank of England made a further intervention into the economy at the start of November by raising interest rates to 3%, an increase of 0.75%. This will have a significant impact on homeowners, and our member, Housing Rights NI, responded:

“We’re especially worried about people we help in our advice work; who are already struggling to meet their mortgage repayments and who are on a repayment plan to address mortgage arrears. For some of these people, this will be a squeeze too far & their homes could be at risk.”

Clients worried about how the interest rate rise will affect their ability to meet their mortgage repayments can ring Housing Rights on 028 9024 5640. Lines are open between 9:30 and 16:30 Monday to Friday.

BBC: Bank of England expects UK to fall into longest ever recession
Money Advice Trust: Rising mortgage rates: A debt advice perspective


Housing Selection Scheme: Intimidation Points

Housing Rights NI have been successful in supporting a client to bring a judicial review before the High Court into the Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s decision not to award intimidation points. The error of law related to the interpretation of the phrase “serious and imminent risk” in Rule 23 of the Housing Selection Scheme, with the judge ruling, “‘Imminent’ simply means ‘likely to happen soon.’” Also significant is the judge’s decision to allow the challenge despite the Housing Executive’s contention that an alternative remedy had been available in the form of their internal complaints procedure. Further detail, and a link to the decision, are available from the Housing Rights website:

A welcome judicial review decision on intimidation points

The article also notes the intention to remove intimidation points from the Housing Selection Scheme as part of the Fundamental Review of Allocations (FRA). Recent engagement from the Housing Executive on the FRA Project suggests that this remains a feature of the FRA, but that its implementation is planned for the final phase of the project, commencing from November 2024.


Ombudsman Investigates Poor Advice Provided by DfC

An investigation by the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman has led to the Department for Communities repaying over £11,000 to a man after it found poor advice caused him to lose his existing benefits. The client was supported in bringing his complaint by Advice NW.

To remedy the situation, the Department was asked to make a payment to him equivalent to the Working Tax Credit he would have received, as well as provide him with an apology. It was also recommended that the Department should improve the advice it gives to potential benefits claimants by making sure it gives details of other helplines which exist to help them with their claims.

Report Summary (PDF)
Investigation Report (PDF)


Access to Benefits With Pre-Settled Status

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) have won a case in the Upper Tribunal on behalf of an EU national with pre-settled status claiming entitlement to Universal Credit. The claim was refused by DWP on the basis that the client had no qualifying right to reside, but the tribunal judged that the appellant is entitled to rely upon the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights even after the end of the Brexit “transition period” on 31 December 2020. The basis for this judgement was that the claimant was a vulnerable person at risk of destitution as a consequence of the decision to deny benefit.

Claire Hall, Head of Strategic Litigation at Child Poverty Action Group, summarised the case:

“The Upper Tribunal recognised that the government’s choice to prevent people with pre-settled status (without an additional right to reside) from accessing universal credit affects some of the most vulnerable people in society, including victims of domestic violence who have fled their homes, like AT and her daughter.

No child in the UK, whether of British, EU, or any other nationality, should have to live in undignified conditions, without adequate food, clothing or shelter, particularly when they have recently fled traumatic circumstances. As a society we should be choosing to protect people’s - including children’s – right to dignity when they face unacceptable living conditions in the UK.

We hope that the Secretary of State will apply the Upper Tribunal’s decision to get urgent help to families in desperate circumstances, while he pursues his appeal of the judgment.”

Following further submissions from the Secretary of State the case will now go to the Court of Appeal.
Full details of the case and an information not for advisers outlining how to deal with similar cases are available on the CPAG website:

Destitute EU nationals with pre-settled status can rely on EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to obtain Universal Credit (press release)
Destitute EU nationals with PSS can rely on EU Charter of Fundamental Rights to obtain Universal Credit (case page)
CPAG information note for welfare rights advisers (PDF)


Trussell Trust Mid-Year Stats

Sobering, if perhaps unsurprising, reading in the mid-year statistics from the nation’s biggest food bank network, the Trussell Trust. According to the charity, “more emergency food parcels were given out during the April to September 2022 period than ever before for this time of year.” UK-wide, this amounts to 1.3 million parcels provided to more than 320,000 people. In Northern Ireland, 31,867 Emergency Food Parcels were provided by the Trussell Trust, with 25% more being provided than during the same period last year.

Trussell Trust: Mid-Year Stats


Benefit Statistics Published

DfC has released the latest set of benefits statistics for the quarter ending 31 August 2022. These can be accessed via the relevant section of the DfC website:

Benefits statistics


Gambling Legislation Update

Following Royal Assent, the Betting, Gaming, Lotteries and Amusements (Amendment) Act 2022 (the 2022 Act) came into operation on 27th April. Key changes include:

  • Bookmakers and Bingo Halls can now open on Sundays and Good Fridays;
  • Pool Betting has been put on a legal footing – meaning that any customers putting a bet on in a Bookmakers do so on the same terms and conditions as if the bet were placed at the Tote at the track;
  • The maximum price of a society lottery has changed from £1 to £100 and the way in which the proceeds of society lotteries are calculated have been simplified.

Website contents and leaflets have been updated, and can be accessed here:
DfC: Betting, gaming, lotteries and amusements


Immigration Skills Charge Exemptions Updated

An amendment to the Immigration Skills Charge Regulations 2017, which determines when businesses sponsoring overseas workers must pay a charge for a certificate of sponsorship, is due to come into force on 1 January 2023. The amendment adds exemptions for certain applicants entering the UK under the Scale-up route or intra-corporate transferees on the Global Business Mobility – Senior or Specialist Worker route.

Free Movement: Immigration Skills Charge updated list of exemptions
Immigration Skills Charge (Amendment) Regulations 2022

Information Resources

Tribunal Procedures & Medical Evidence

Following the recent Tribunal User Forum events in Belfast and Omagh, we wanted to highlight some essential resources that all representatives should be aware of. The President of the Tribunal has reiterated previous guidance relating to medical evidence in light of the ongoing pilot for Personal Independence Payment cases. Central to this is the requirement to limit submissions of medical evidence to information that would be relevant to the client’s case, and to always be mindful of the observations of Upper Tribunal Judge Wikeley in a 2016 PIP case involving a serious confidentiality breach. Basic procedures for representatives are outlined in the Appeals Service’s Code of Practice for Representatives, while the Law Centre NI’s Adviser Practice Guide covers the process of appeals from initial dispute to post-hearing procedures. We also include a link to the aforementioned Upper Tribunal decision.

Code of practice for tribunal representatives
Law Centre NI: Adviser Practice Guide on Appeals to the Appeal Tribunal
Upper Tribunal Administrative Appeals Chamber decision by Judge Wikeley on 29 November 2016


Budgeting Advances

October’s edition of CPAG’s Welfare Rights Bulletin included a handy primer on Budgeting Advances, which allow Universal Credit recipients to apply for a one-off lump sum payment to cover an emergency need. We also include a link to the relevant legislation for Northern Ireland.

Budgeting advances
Social Security (Payments on Account of Benefit) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016


Asylum Seekers & Permission to Work

A new research briefing from the House of Commons Library outlines current policy debates surrounding the permission to work for asylum seekers, and includes a concise opening section summarising the current rules and the scope for discretion on the part of UK Visas & Immigration.

Asylum seekers: the permission to work policy


Infection Control

The Public Health Agency has updated its guidance document on infection control in schools and other childcare settings, which provides recommended periods for which children should be kept out of school, nursery or childcare settings in the event of a range of infections. They have also published a factsheet on ‘Group A Strep’ to help parents stay alert to signs of this infection.

Guidance on infection control in schools and other childcare settings in Northern Ireland
Factsheet - What is Group A Strep


Advice NI Annual Report

Advice NI published its Annual Report during its AGM at the Skainos Centre, Belfast, on 24 November. The report shows how the independent advice network dealt with more than 241,000 queries in 2021-22, three quarters of those relating to welfare benefits issues, while our debt advice service supported more than 3,300 clients with over £27m of debt.

Annual Report 2022


Community Wealth Building

The Ministerial Advisory Panel on Community Wealth Building appointed by the Minister for Communities in March delivered its independent report in October, including 26 recommendations to deliver real and sustainable change. Welcoming the report, Minister Hargey said:

“I established an independent panel to review how we can grow and scale our Community Wealth Building approaches … I welcome the publication of the report which is ambitious and shines a light on how Executive Departments and Local Government can achieve the fundamental shifts we need to properly address poverty and the structural inequalities that exist in our communities.”

The report considers the potential for improved social and economic outcomes by making policy, legislative and practical changes in a number of areas including Social Value, Community Rights, support for Social Enterprise, Social Finance, Real Living Wage and Workers Rights. Bridget Meehan, Policy Officer for Advice NI, comments:

“This report is welcomed as an upstream approach to dealing with some of the poverty and cost of living problems our society is facing. CWB has the potential to retain the benefits of locally generated wealth for the good of our region. But that potential will only be realised if the recommendations in this report are acted upon.”

Independent Report to advance Community Wealth Building in Northern Ireland
Hargey welcomes report on Community Wealth Building


Business Rate Review Consultation

In autumn of 2019, the Department of Finance undertook a full and comprehensive review of business rates in Northern Ireland. An eight-week public consultation process began on 18 September 2019 and continued to 11 November 2019. The Review was aimed at ensuring the Department of Finance was ready with updated advice for the anticipated return of Ministers in 2020. The report was scheduled for publication in Spring 2020. The Department has now published the factual report originally prepared back in 2020. All consultation documentation including the Terms of Reference and the recently published report are on the Department’s website.

Business Rates Public Consultation


State of Caring in Northern Ireland

This report explores the key findings from Carers NI’s latest State of Caring survey. The annual State of Caring survey has been undertaken for over a decade and is Northern Ireland’s most comprehensive research into the lives and experiences of unpaid carers.

The report finds unpaid carers particularly badly served, with rates of ill health high and the cost of living crisis causing significant hardship for this group. In light of the survey’s findings, Carers NI “are calling for a legal right to social care support for all unpaid carers, the appointment of an independent Carers’ Champion to advocate for carers to government, and wider transformation of the health system.”

One in four unpaid carers in NI suffering ‘shocking’ levels of poor health – survey
State of Caring in Northern Ireland 2022


Social Security Decision Making

DfC published the Joint Standards Committee 2021 annual report on social security decision making and financial accuracy in N.I. The Committee is chaired by Marie Cavanagh, and includes our own Head of Policy, Kevin Higgins, as an independent member.

The Joint Standards Committee - established to provide independent scrutiny of the quality of decision making with regard to social security and child support in Northern Ireland - reports annually on standards of decision making and financial accuracy and has focused this year on six benefits - carer's allowance, ESA, PIP, state pension, state pension credit, and UC.

Key findings, taken from a sample survey of live benefit cases, show that ESA, PIP and state pension credit met or exceeded their benchmark, while the standard of decision making for state pension was just 86 per cent (11 per cent below the benchmark).

In her foreword, Marie Cavanagh encouraged the Department to consider staffing issues relating to decision making, particularly in view of the planned process of managed migration to Universal Credit, which will place inevitable additional administrative strain on resources.

Social Security Decision Making Report


Fraud & Error in the Benefits System

The Public Accounts Committee has sharply criticised the DWP for “unacceptably high” levels of fraud and error in the benefit system, which amounted to £8.6 billion in 2021-22. The Government has two months to respond to the Committee’s recommendations. A notable recommendation is:

“The Department should report annually to Parliament on its assessment of the impact of data analytics on protected groups and vulnerable claimants. The Department should also consider what role the Social Security Advisory Committee can play in supporting public trust over the use of data analytics in the welfare system.”

PAC: DWP excuses for “unprecedented and unacceptable” levels of benefit fraud and error don’t stand up


Wellbeing in Northern Ireland

The Executive Office, in association with NISRA, has published its 2021-22 Wellbeing report for Northern Ireland. Using data from the 2021/22 Continuous Household Survey, the report presents findings in four thematic areas: Loneliness, Self-Efficacy, Personal Wellbeing and Locus of Control. In addition, the associated Wellbeing Dashboard allows interested parties to explore time series data for all subpopulation breakdowns, which can be exported for use in reports and research publications.

Wellbeing in Northern Ireland Report 2021/22
NISRA: Northern Ireland Wellbeing Dashboard


Digital Skills & Inclusion

The Community Foundation Northern Ireland, an independent, grant making trust, is calling for a Digital Strategy for Northern Ireland in its new report, Wired Up? The report looks at the current levels of digital skills and inclusion in the Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise Sector in Northern Ireland, and concludes that there is a lack of both digital support and funding within the sector.

Community Foundation calls for Digital Strategy for Northern Ireland
Wired Up? Digital Report (PDF)

Campaigns & Engagement

Charity Commission’s Annual Public Meeting

The event will include an overview of the Commission’s work and development in recent years, the changes brought in following the new Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 as well as the regulator’s plans for the future.

As part of a roundtable discussion, attendees will be invited to focus on the Commission’s proposals for engaging with the sector and its future plans for 2023 to 2026.

Get an in-depth look at the work of Northern Ireland’s charity regulator


Homelessness Awareness Week

Homelessness Awareness Week 2022 took place from 5 to 11 December, with organisations hosting events across NI. The theme this year was "Have the Conversation", with participants encouraged to talk to people they know about the reality of homelessness and how we can work together to prevent it. Look back at the wide variety of events using the social media hashtags #HAW22 and #HaveTheConvo.


Public Policy Academic Network Launched

A major new public policy initiative is being developed by the Open University (OU). PolicyWISE will be the UK's first network of academics and civil servants to explicitly address comparative public policy research and knowledge exchange across the four nations of the UK and Ireland. Working across the nations will enable PolicyWISE to take a deliberately comparative approach to public policy-making in a post-devolution, post-Brexit UK.

The OU has been awarded £1m in funding, which will support the launch of PolicyWISE in 2023 and its development over the following four years. Partners from Cardiff University, Trinity College Dublin, Queen’s University Belfast, The University of Edinburgh and University College London are on board to help shape its development.

OU to lead first public policy research and knowledge exchange academic network across the UK and Ireland


Disability on the Record – Exhibition

The Department for Communities is hosting a two-week exhibition to celebrate the UN International Day of Persons with Disabilities. The travelling exhibition will next go on display at branch libraries across Northern Ireland in 2023.

International Day: Persons with Disabilities


Energy "One Stop Shop" Implementation Plan

Economy Minister Gordon Lyons has launched a public consultation on the development of an Energy “One-Stop Shop” (OSS). The One Stop Shop will work with partners to consolidate advice, guidance and support in energy-related matters in an effort to simplify the energy decarbonisation journey for consumers, whether they need impartial advice on what to do and how to do it, or protection along the decarbonisation journey. The closing date for submissions is 20 January 2023.

Energy "One Stop Shop" Implementation Plan - consultation on policy options


Charity Commission Strategic Plan

The Charity Commission is seeking views on its draft Strategic Plan for 2023-2026 and Engagement Strategy. The consultation will guide “how the Northern Ireland charity regulator will develop and grow over the next three years, as well as how it will engage and communicate with charities and the public.”

The consultation follows on from the Independent Review of Charity Regulation (PDF) commissioned by the Minister for Communities in January 2021.

As part of a 12-week consultation, running from 14 November 2022 to 6 February 2023, the Commission is calling on anyone interested to share their views on the proposals within the two draft plans. You can respond to both plans, or to one of them.

Charity Commission Strategic Plan

Parliamentary Questions

Social Security Benefits: Uprating

UIN 95977
Stephen Farry, Alliance

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether the (a) New Style Contributory Employment and Support Allowance, (b) Contribution-based Jobseeker's Allowance and (c) Income-related Jobseeker's Allowance will be uprated by the inflation rate announced in his Autumn 2022 Statement.

Guy Opperman, Conservative

Yes, they will.


PIP: Medical Examinations

UIN 77643
Selaine Saxby, Conservative

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many and what proportion of Personal Independence Payment assessments were carried out (a) face-to-face, (b) remotely and (c) on paper in each month since 1 January 2022.

Tom Pursglove, Conservative

The number and proportion of Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments carried out (a) face to face, (b) remotely, including telephone and video, and c) paper based, can be found in the tables [see link to PQ]


Employment: Disability

UIN 73858
Rachael Maskell,  Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what steps he is taking to help enable disabled people with fluctuating medical conditions to find suitable work which matches their skills and offers flexible work arrangements in line with their personal circumstances.

Tom Pursglove, Conservative

A range of Government initiatives include: increasing Work Coach support nationally for people with health conditions receiving Universal Credit or Employment Support Allowance; Disability Employment Advisers in Jobcentres offering advice and expertise; the Work and Health Programme and Intensive Personalised Employment Support, providing tailored and personalised support for participants; Access to Work; Disability Confident…. …The Government recognises the benefits of flexible working arrangements and is committed to supporting all individuals and businesses to work flexibly. Since 2014, all employees with 26 weeks’ continuous service have the statutory right to request a change to the hours, timing, or location of their work. The framework is clear that a request to work flexibly can only be rejected where there are sound business reasons for doing so – and those business reasons are set out in law. Last year, the Government took forward a manifesto commitment to consult on making changes to the right to request flexible working a ‘day one’ right and whether the business reasons for refusing requests remain valid. The Government response will be published in due course.


Social Security Benefits: Disqualification

UIN 77316
Hywel Williams, Plaid Cymru

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many claimants aged under-25 have received an affordability assessment before a sanction has been issued, both as a total number and as a proportion of all sanctions issued to this age group, in the most recent month for which data is available.

Guy Opperman, Conservative

The requested information is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost.


Social Security Benefits: Overpayments

UIN 78850
Fleur Anderson, Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether he has made a recent assessment of the impact of repaying debt owed to the Government, including Council Tax and benefit overpayments, on the financial situations of people receiving benefits, in the context of the cost of living crisis.

Tom Pursglove, Conservative

The Department for Work and Pensions remains committed to working with anyone who is struggling with their repayment terms. Where a person has been overpaid benefit and feels they cannot afford the proposed rate of recovery, they are encouraged to contact the department to discuss a temporary reduction in their rate of repayment.

The department has a well-established process for working with individuals to support them to manage any debts. Our agents will always look to negotiate affordable and sustainable repayment plans. This includes working with individuals to review their financial circumstances and, in most instances, a temporary reduction in their rate of repayment can also be agreed.

There is no minimum amount that a claimant has to pay, and we have recently extended the time period for any reduced repayment to remain in place.


Social Security Benefits: Visual Impairment

UIN 79329
Paul Girvan, Democratic Unionist Party

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether he has concluded his annual review of benefits; and whether this review considered how many blind and partially sighted people use disability benefits intended to cover the additional costs their disability incurs on basic essentials

Tom Pursglove, Conservative

The outcome of the Secretary of State’s annual review of State Pension and benefit rates will be announced shortly. Under the Equality Act 2010, public authorities are required to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity, and to consider the effects of his decisions on those with protected characteristics, which includes disability.

In England and Wales, as of February 2022, there were 43 thousand people with Attendance Allowance who report visual disorders as their primary condition and 21 thousand claiming Disabled Living Allowance. As of July 2022, there were 51 thousand people claiming Personal Independence Payment who report visual disorders as their primary condition. These figures exclude Scotland and Northern Ireland because these benefits are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and are a transferred matter in Northern Ireland.


UC: Digital Claims

UIN 3151
Baroness Lister of Burtersett, Labour

To ask His Majesty's Government how they are publicising to (1) claimants, and (2) advisers, the facility that exists for claimants to make and maintain a universal credit claim not online in cases where they would have difficulty with a digital claim; and what steps have they taken to ensure that (a) universal credit work coaches, and (b) subcontracted telephony agents, are aware of this facility.

Baroness Stedman-Scott, Conservative

Guidance is available on GOV.UK Universal Credit, outlining how claimants can make a claim to Universal Credit and the provision available to claim via the Universal Credit helpline telephony service for those who can’t claim online. Guidance is available to both Work Coaches and telephony agents regarding the option for claimants to make and maintain their Universal Credit claim by phone. In addition, DWP staff regularly receive reminders via senior leader calls of the facility to make claims by phone for those claimants who need it.


Social Security Benefits: Disability

UIN 87845
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when he will publish his White Paper on the future of disability benefits.

Tom Pursglove, Conservative

We published Shaping Future Support: The Health and Disability Green Paper last year. This asked for views on ways we can improve the experience people have of our benefits system and set out ways we could make our services easier to access, make our processes simpler and help build people’s trust.

We received over 4,500 responses to the Health and Disability Green Paper consultation and are very grateful to all the individuals and organisations who contributed.

We will respond with a White Paper in the coming months.


On-line PIP Applications

UIN 87847
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what steps he will take to ensure PIP claimants who do not use the internet are still able to (a) apply for PIP and (b) manage their claim following the rollout of a digital end-to-end PIP service.

Tom Pursglove, Conservative

The Health Transformation Programme (HTP) is modernising health and disability benefit services. It will create a more efficient service and improved claimant experience, reducing journey times and improving trust in our services and decisions.

HTP will transform all aspects of the PIP service across the full claimant journey, from finding out about benefits and eligibility, through to decision and payments. HTP is one of the Government's major projects and has, therefore, been subject to appropriate scrutiny to ensure that its delivery plans are robust and that it will deliver value for money for the taxpayer.

The new PIP service will introduce an option to apply for PIP online. We will be developing the service carefully and incrementally, designing it around the needs of claimants. We understand that not everyone is comfortable or able to use online services. Use of the online service will be optional, and we will continue to provide alternative routes to claim for those who are unable, or prefer not to use, the online service.


Christmas Bonus: Social Security Benefits

HL 3188
Baroness Buscombe, Conservative

To ask His Majesty's Government whether an annual Christmas bonus for benefit claimants will be paid this year; if so, how many claimants will receive that bonus; and what the total cost will be, including administrative costs, to public funds.

Baroness Stedman-Scott, Conservative

The Christmas Bonus will be paid this year. The Christmas Bonus is an annual, tax-free, lump sum payment to pensioners and to working aged people who, during the relevant week (which is usually the first full week in December) are entitled to payment of certain qualifying benefits and who are resident in the UK, an EEA state or Switzerland.

The qualifying benefits are:
State Pension; Pension Credit; Widowed Mother's/Parent's Allowance; Widows' Pension; Industrial Death Benefit by way of Widow's or Widower's Pension; War Widow's Pensions; Long-Term Incapacity Benefit; Personal Independence Payment; Adult Disability Payment; Child Disability Payment; Transitionally-Protected Severe Disablement Allowance; Attendance Allowance; Disability Living Allowance; Unemployability Supplement or Constant Attendance Allowance paid under Industrial Injuries or War Pensions schemes; Carer's Allowance; Mobility Supplement; War Disablement Pension (if over age 65); Armed Forces Independence payment; and contribution-based Employment and Support Allowance (once the main phase is entered after the first 13 weeks of claim)

In most cases the bonus is paid automatically with whichever qualifying benefit an individual receives, which ensures administration costs are kept to a minimum.

The number of benefit claimants expected to receive the annual Christmas bonus, based on 2022/23 forecasts are 16,443,000.

The total cost in real terms, based on 2022/23 forecasts is £164 million.