Advice NI Policy Newsletter February 2020
The Advice NI Policy Newsletter
Welcome to the latest in our series of Advice NI policy eNewsletters ‘ … think …’.
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Welcome news as the Communities Minister commits to extending the mitigations post March 2020; Advice NI is keen to see the legislation on this and equally keen to see arrangements for continuing the additional ‘Evason’ independent advice services.
The Dept. for the Economy is calling for evidence for Energy Strategy Call for Evidence; the consultation closes 20 March 2020. https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/energy-strategy-call-for-evidence
Also, the Department for Communities has appointed Marie Cavanagh to carry out the second independent statutory Review of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment. https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/consultations/second-independent-review-personal-independence-payment-pip-assessment-process-northern-ireland
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The Policy Team
Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey MLA today announced her plans for the extension of the welfare mitigations to the bedroom tax beyond 31 March 2020.
Bedroom Tax Mitigations to be Extended by Communities Minister
The mitigation scheme currently provides financial support to people who would otherwise have lost out due to welfare cuts.
An estimated 38,000 households are in receipt of supplementary payments which protects them from the bedroom tax.
Minister Hargey said: “We have a responsibility to protect the poorest and most vulnerable in society. I am pleased to announce that today the Executive agreed to my recommendation, in line with New Decade, New Approach, for the urgent extension of the bedroom tax mitigation beyond March 2020.
In the coming weeks I will introduce new legislation to extend this essential mitigation, which will continue to safeguard more than 38,000 of the most vulnerable households in our society from harsh Tory welfare cuts.
A society is judged on how we protect the most disadvantaged. I am a Minister who will fight to protect those families living in poverty; low-income families, single-parent families, those with disabilities and children and young people. I am working hard to target resources towards those most in need.
There are also other mitigations which need to be looked at as we review the mitigation measures we committed to in ‘New Decade, New Approach’. I will continue to work with stakeholders in moving forward with that important piece of work.”
Letter to stakeholders from Director of Business & Employment Regulation Division, Dept. for the Economy
Early Conciliation Introduced to Northern Ireland
Early Conciliation came into effect from 27 January 2020.
As a result, anyone who wishes to lodge a claim with the Industrial or Fair Employment Tribunal must first notify the Labour Relations Agency and discuss the option of Early Conciliation. Potential claimants will not be able to proceed to tribunal without at least considering this option.
This marks a significant change from the current situation, whereby claims can be lodged with the tribunal and the Agency then has a duty to make contact with the parties to offer conciliation.
The Department for the Economy has made the following statutory rules.
- The Employment Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 (Commencement No. 3) Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 - http://www.legislation.gov.uk/id/nisr/2020/1
This Order brings into operation certain provisions of the Employment Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 on 27th January 2020.
- The Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunal (Early Conciliation: Exemptions and Rules of Procedure) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 - http://www.legislation.gov.uk/id/nisr/2020/2
The Employment Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 amended the Industrial Tribunals (Northern Ireland) Order 1996 and the Fair Employment and Treatment (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 to introduce a requirement for prospective claimants to contact the Labour Relations Agency before they are able to present a claim to an industrial tribunal or the Fair Employment Tribunal. This requirement applies to claims which are relevant proceedings under Article 20(1) of the Industrial Tribunals Order or Article 38 of the Fair Employment and Treatment Order.
- The Industrial Tribunals and Fair Employment Tribunal (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 - http://www.legislation.gov.uk/id/nisr/2020/3
- The Industrial Tribunals (1996 Order) (Application of Conciliation Provisions) Order (Northern Ireland) 2020 - http://www.legislation.gov.uk/id/nisr/2020/4
Collectively the legislation will bring Early Conciliation into operation from 27 January 2020, alongside revised and consolidated rules of procedure for industrial tribunals and the Fair Employment Tribunal.
Information about Early Conciliation is available from the Labour Relations Agency.
Tom Evans, Chief Executive of the Labour Relations Agency explained: “Early Conciliation is about more than just a change in process. It represents a valuable opportunity to bring cultural change in how workplace disputes are resolved in Northern Ireland. We know that early engagement is the most effective way to resolve workplace problems, before parties become embroiled in an often bitter, legal confrontation……Last year the Agency dealt with 4,500 cases about individual employment rights and only 8% proceeded to tribunal. For those that reach a conciliated agreement, there are numerous benefits compared with going through a tribunal, including the privacy of the process, lack of fees, speed and control over the content of the settlement. There are also benefits for the labour market and economy with fewer costs and losses in productivity.”
Anne McKernan, Director of Legal Services for the Equality Commission, stated:
“The Equality Commission welcomes the Early Conciliation service of the Labour Relations Agency…We are committed to the early, less costly and more informal resolution of workplace disputes. Whilst supporting the early resolution of complaints about discrimination at work, we will continue to support strategic cases before tribunals, for example, cases which would have ramifications beyond the circumstances of an individual complainant and can lead to wider change”
See NI Assembly Updates section, for more information
HIA Compensation payments will not be counted as income for benefit purposes
DfC states that the money is exempt from taxation and for benefits purposes. It will be an exempted payment like CJD or Thalidomide payments.
15 Status etc of award
- An award of compensation under this Part is to be paid—
- as a single lump sum, or
- if the award is by way of two payments in accordance with section 14, as a lump sum for each payment.
- An award of compensation under this Part does not give rise to a charge to any tax or to a liability to pay national insurance contributions.
- An award of compensation under this Part is to be disregarded for the purposes of an assessment of a person’s eligibility for a social security benefit the entitlement to which depends on the carrying out of a means test.
Ms Hargey said her department is "not required to publish information relating to individual benefit convictions through the courts, which is already in the public domain. I have therefore decided it is not necessary for my department to also publish this information. Instead, I have asked officials to consider how fraud and error information could be published in a more strategic way to reflect the wide range of work undertaken in this area.
Deirdre Hargey orders DfC to stop publishing names of those convicted of benefit fraud
This could include not just the work we do to protect public funds and reduce loss, but also as importantly, correcting underpayments and delivering outreach services to make sure everyone is receiving their full entitlement to benefit."
The Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 requires this second review, following the Rader report in 2018.
2nd Independent PIP Review
Ms Marie Cavanagh is to carry out the second independent statutory Review of the Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment.
Marie Cavanagh is formerly Chair for the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action and is currently Chair of Children in Northern Ireland, having more than thirty years’ experience in the voluntary and community sector.
Advice NI will be facilitating a meeting with Marie as part of the Review.
In October 2019, the Rt Hon Frank Field MP wrote to the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) regarding the Department for Work and Pensions’ response to a Parliamentary Question Mr Field raised in September 2019, on the topic of benefit claimants who had ended their lives by suicide.
NAO report re: Suicide of benefit claimants
The C&AG, in his response to Mr Field, proposed that the NAO engage with the Department to establish what information the Department holds on benefit claimants who ended their lives by suicide, how that information is produced, and how it is stored, accessed and used.
Advice NI provide evidence to the Communities Committee on welfare mitgations
Session with Assembly Communities Committee
Kevin Higgins, Head of Policy, evidence:
“When I engaged with the frontline in terms of this session, there were 2 clear messages that came back to me loud and clear:
1. We don’t take for granted the support we receive to do the work we do. So it’s about underlining why independent advice is so important. It’s been a tough slog over this last decade for advisers and clients – constant cuts and changes to social security; a climate of fear and uncertainty; really vulnerable people needing help; other people treated as guinea pigs with the rollout of the digital first Universal Credit system – with begrudging changes to that when the misery and hardship can no longer be ignored; all at a time of stigmatising propaganda in some parts of the media;
So how vital at a time of cuts and change to have trusted, quality, free, independent advice services embedded in communities right across every Council area.
So what can independent advice offer – well you will be listened to; you will be treated with dignity and respect. Beyond that as the Strategic Investment Board report highlighted you will get a quality service even as more vulnerable people with even more complex needs come forward for help with forms or challenging a benefit decision; and despite what some Assembly Answers – Robin – would have you believe, looking at 18/19 Appeal Service statistics – and by the way appeal hearings in 18/19 have increased by 33percent – not a 3percent success rate at appeal – but as a percentage of all appeal hearings with a definitive outcome a success rate of 55percent / and a 63percent success rate when you look specifically at appeal hearings where the appellant has a representative as opposed to a 39percent success rate without representation.
2. That said, this takes me to the second clear message from the frontline and that’s around ‘who does what’ in terms of advice – there is a strong desire to open a conversation between the advice sector and the Department in terms of the respective advice 'offerings' of each. It’s not for me to tell the Department what to do – there is a need to look at ‘who does what’; ‘who is best placed to do what’; what is the most effective and efficient approach; and maybe most importantly what is needed.
So for example, someone rings up looking for a benefit form and they are advised to ring Make the Call for help, when there is an independent service around the corner;
Someone is trying to claim Universal Credit in their home, can’t complete the process, their case is closed. This person is known to the Department and yet where is the help for that person to complete their claim;
Someone vulnerable and at risk of a benefit sanction, they are known to the Department, where is the help to explain how a sanction could be avoided;
Someone is assisted by the Department to make a claim, but the application is turned down or there is only a partial award. What happens next, the Department cannot challenge itself, they cannot send both a Presenting Officer and a representative to a tribunal.
We are saying there is a vital role for support to be provided by both the Department and the independent advice sector – but a conversation is needed around who should be doing what.”
MOT test update: Contact line for priority groups now operational and three year old light goods vehicles to get automatic temporary exemption certificate
MOT Test Update
The Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) has today opened a priority vehicle contact line on 0300 2007862. The line will be open from 9am – 5pm Monday to Friday.
The contact line is for use by three priority vehicle groups which include four year old cars due their first MOT, taxis and car dealerships. These groups are unable to avail of a Temporary Exemption Certificate being issued to other car and light goods vehicle owners.
Speaking as the contact line opens, DVA Chief Executive Paul Duffy said:
“We are therefore asking anyone with a four year old car due its first MOT, taxis and local car dealerships with vehicles due a test within the next two weeks to contact us on 0300 2007862, so we can move your appointment forward. Please state clearly when the vehicle test is due and have your booking reference to hand. This line will continue to be open to all relevant customers within the priority groups who need an urgent appointment within two weeks from the time of the call.
“DVA can only bring an appointment forward after a booking has been made on the system, so it is essential that customers continue to make a booking when they get a reminder letter.”
Three existing lifts in Belfast and Lisburn have been independently inspected and are back in operational use. Two independent reviews announced by the Minister for Infrastructure have also now begun and an initial report in relation to the status of existing vehicle lifts and any repair work necessary is due shortly.
DVA would like to remind owners of cars of five years and older whose tests have been cancelled by the DVA, that they will automatically receive a Temporary Exemption Certificate (TEC), thereby enabling them to continue to drive and tax their vehicle.
TECs are also being automatically issued to owners of three year old light goods vehicles. Testing of heavy goods vehicles, buses, motorcycles and re-tests remains unaffected by the current disruption and those customers should continue to attend appointments.
Customers should continue to book an MOT when they get their reminder letter. This will ensure that, should DVA need to cancel the test later, a temporary exemption certificate can be issued automatically. Bookings can be made online at www.nidirect.gov.uk/services/book-motvehicle-test-online by ringing the booking line on 034 5247 2471 or in person at a Test Centre.
The public can get more information at www.nidirect.gov.uk/mot-latest
Stephen Timms – Labour MP for East Ham – has been elected as the new chair of the Work and Pensions Committee
New Chair of Work & Pensions Committee
Stephen Timms has formally taken up position as Chair of the Committee when the remaining members of the Committee have been named by the House. This is expected to be announced in February.
Asked by Baroness Lister of Burtersett
Universal Credit & Managed Migration
Asked on: 19 December 2019
To ask Her Majesty's Government how many claimants have been moved on to Universal Credit under the managed migration pilot being undertaken in Harrogate.
Answered by Baroness Stedman-Scott: The Universal Credit (Managed Migration Pilot and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2019 allow the Department to pilot moving no more than 10,000 claimants across to Universal Credit from legacy benefits and is expected to last until November 2020.
The Move to Universal Credit pilot commenced, as scheduled, in the area served by Harrogate Jobcentre in July 2019. The goal of the pilot is to learn as much as possible about how to safely move people from legacy benefits onto Universal Credit. As a result, we will increase numbers as slowly and gradually as necessary. We are adapting the design of this service and its processes frequently to ensure we provide the best possible support to those claimants who move to Universal Credit from their legacy benefit claims.
The Department has already committed to updating Parliament and stakeholders on progress. We expect to provide our first update in the Spring. We will also set out an evaluation strategy, developed in consultation with stakeholders, before coming to Parliament in the Autumn with the findings and our proposals for the next phase of the delivery of Universal Credit.
The pilot moving no more than 10,000 claimants across to #UniversalCredit from legacy benefits and is expected to last until Nov 2020. It commenced in July 2019, and 13 have moved in 6 months. At this rate, 10,000 will be reached in 384 years.
Next Phase in Implementing Universal Credit
I want to share an update on the next phase in implementing Universal Credit, previously called Managed Migration, and now known as ‘Move to UC’.
Last January, I wrote to tell you of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) plans to commence a pilot exercise and gave a timeframe for Move to UC here. In the next phase, those who remain in receipt of any of the benefits/credits that Universal Credit replaces will be contacted and will move across to Universal Credit.
The DWP pilot commenced in Harrogate in July 2019. The pilot is testing a number of approaches to identify the best way to move people across to Universal Credit. Move to UC, for people in GB, was due to complete in December 2023, however, DWP recently announced that the end date for Move to UC will now be extended by nine months to September 2024.
Subject to DWP progress and Department for Communities’ Ministerial approval, and to ensure that we have the best opportunity to learn from the DWP pilot, it is anticipated that the earliest Move to UC will commence here is early 2021, completing by September 2024.
We are committed to delivering this next phase here in a safe and controlled way, ensuring that there is support and additional safeguards to protect vulnerable people.
Officials in my Department will continue to work with you and a wide range of grass-roots community organisations not only to improve the service offered to people claiming Universal Credit, but also to support and shape the Move to UC for people here.
I look forward to continuing to work with you to deliver the best possible outcomes for people here.
Please contact the Universal Credit Programme Director, Conrad McConnell by email UniversalCreditCommunications@communities-ni.gov.uk if you have any queries.
Asked by Ronnie Cowan (Inverclyde)[N]
Universal Credit & Severe Disability Premium's
Asked on: 16 January 2020
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, when she plans to complete the process of back paying claimants who were incorrectly moved from severe disability premium on to universal credit.
Answered by: Justin Tomlinson
Answered on: 30 January 2020
The SDP gateway has been in place for over a year to prevent those claimants entitled to the Severe Disability Premium (SDP) as part of their legacy benefit from claiming Universal Credit. We have successfully identified eligible former SDP claimants who have already moved to Universal Credit due to a change in circumstances, providing them with monthly payments and a lump sum in arrears, where appropriate. As of 17 January 2020, 15,397 claims have been paid an SDP transitional payment. The average (median) value of the lump sum payments is £2,280. To date, over £51.5m has been disbursed to support former SDP claimants, including the recurring payments that have now commenced.
Positive progress has been made and caseload growth has now slowed, however, in the event a new case is discovered payments will be in place quickly. It is not possible to estimate when we will have paid everyone who is entitled as some people become entitled to these payments retrospectively, and therefore the caseload is not a fixed number.
Asked by Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke)
Universal Credit fluctuations
Asked on: 04 February 2020
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what plans her Department has to introduce a mechanism into universal credit to allow claimants to move their review date, in order to avoid fluctuations in their benefit payments when there is no change in wages.
Answered by: Will Quince
Answered on: 12 February 2020
Assessment periods allow for UC awards to be adjusted on a monthly basis, ensuring that if a claimant’s income changes, they do not have to wait several months for a corresponding change in their UC award. Earnings are taken into account in the assessment period they are received and in this way the UC paid to claimants reflects, as closely as possible, the actual circumstances of a household during each monthly assessment period.
The Department has been working closely with HM Revenues and Customs (HMRC) since UC went live in 2013 to support and inform employers who report payroll earnings, to emphasise the importance of timely reporting via the Real Time Information (RTI) system. HMRC have updated their guidance to reiterate to employers the importance of reporting payroll accurately and the impact of reporting payments late.
Employers should already record on HMRC’s RTI system the date a salary is scheduled to be paid, rather than the date it is paid, where it is earlier due to a weekend, bank holiday or at Christmas.
Asked by Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk)
Offline UC applications
Asked on: 21 January 2020
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, how many offline universal credit applications were made by constituents of Linlithgow and East Falkirk between January and December 2019.
Answered by: Will Quince
Answered on: 29 January 2020
The information requested is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost. Universal Credit is designed to be a ‘digital-first’ service, ensuring we make best use of technology to deliver a modern and effective working-age welfare system, allowing our staff to concentrate on those people who require additional support. Although the Department offers comprehensive support for claimants to use our digital service, there will be occasions when people are unable to make their claim online, so telephone applications can be accepted. In these instances, information normally available through a claimant’s online account will be communicated in an alternative format, which is best suited to an individual’s circumstances.
Asked by Neil Gray(Airdrie and Shotts)
Overpayments & Departmental Error
Asked on: 09 January 2020
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether her Department enforces the (a) repayment of social security overpayments and (b) prosecutions when the error was made by her Department.
Answered by: Will Quince
Answered on: 14 January 2020
For all benefits other than Universal Credit, New Style Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and New Style Employment Support Allowance (ESA), overpayments resulting from Departmental error are not recoverable.
Section 105 of The Welfare Reform Act 2012 amended the Social Security Act 1992, so that for Universal Credit, New Style JSA and New Style ESA, any payment in excess of the entitlement is recoverable, regardless of how the overpayment of entitlement occurred. This policy was brought in to reflect the need for a better value for money welfare system and to reinforce the overarching aim that Universal Credit mirrors work.
As a Department, we understand the impact that debt can have on the wellbeing of claimants and we endeavour to ensure that the recovery of any overpayment is managed in a way that takes account of the claimant’s individual circumstances. I can confirm that the Department would not prosecute a claimant if an overpayment occurred purely as a result of a Departmental error, and would only consider prosecuting a claimant where there is strong evidence to suggest they may have committed benefit fraud
Mr Andy Allen
Universal Credit & 5-week wait
To ask the Minister for Communities how many Universal Credit claimants had to wait longer than five weeks for their first payment.
Each week approximately 860 new claims for Universal Credit become due for their first payment, with 95% of these paid at the end of that first 5 week period.
Anyone suffering financial hardship during this 5 week period can apply for an Advance Payment, with further support also available from the Universal Credit Contingency Fund or Discretionary Support.
Asked by Stella Creasy(Walthamstow)
Universal Credit Childcare Flexible Support Fund [G.B]
Asked on: 04 February 2020
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether funding is available to existing universal credit claimants to pay for childcare so that they are not required to pay up front and claim the money back.
Answered by: Will Quince
Answered on: 10 February 2020
The Universal Credit childcare policy aligns with the wider government childcare offer, which includes free childcare hours and tax free childcare. Claimants can utilise both the free childcare entitlement and Universal Credit childcare costs in conjunction with each other. This offer means that reasonable childcare costs should not form a barrier to work. The Government is committed to supporting parents with moving into work and, as part of this, Universal Credit pays up to 85% of childcare costs, compared to 70% in legacy benefits.
The Flexible Support Fund (FSF) can pay up to 100% of the upfront childcare costs (subject to payment limits) that the claimant incurs before starting work and receiving their first wage. Through FSF, work coaches can support claimants with barriers that may prevent them from moving into employment, such as childcare or travel costs. Each case is considered carefully on its own merits with financial help available in advance to eligible claimants. Universal Credit claimants are able to upload digital copies of their childcare cost receipts or invoices through their online Universal Credit account. In October 2019, the Department introduced changes to give parents longer to report their childcare costs. Childcare costs can be claimed in the same assessment period they were paid, or by the end of the following assessment period.
Asked by Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw)
Asked on: 15 January 2020
To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what savings have accrued to the public purse under the £30 reduction for claimants of employment and support allowance in the work-related activity group in each month since that reduction was implemented.
Corrected answer by: Justin Tomlinson
Corrected on: 24 January 2020
An error has been identified in the written answer given on 20 January 2020. The correct answer should have been:
There are no savings from the removal of the Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Component for new claims from April 2017. This change enabled the Department to recycle money into providing practical support that will make a significant difference to the life chances of those in the Work-Related Activity Group. We have invested £330m over 4 years with £100m available in 2020/21 and will support those with limited capability for work to move towards and into suitable employment.
The information requested on the savings accrued from the removal of the Work Related Activity Component (WRAC) is not available. It would incur disproportionate cost to calculate any actual net savings from the removal of the WRAC. When the WRAC was removed we made a clear commitment to instead provide practical support that will make a significant difference to the life chances of those in the Work-Related Activity Group. We have been investing an additional £330m over 4 years to support those with limited capability for work to move towards and into suitable employment.
Asked by Baroness Lister of Burtersett
Universal Credit & Managed Migration
NI Assembly Updates
Ms Dillon asked the First Minister and deputy First Minister when compensation payments for victims of historical institutional abuse will be made.
HIA Victims: Compensation
Mrs Foster: I pay tribute to the hard work of the campaigners. It has been a long and difficult journey, and it is their commitment that has got us to this point. The process took too long; yet, I am pleased for the victims of that terrible abuse that we have got to this point.
It is planned that the Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board application process will be open to victims and survivors at the end of March 2020. The redress board multidisciplinary panels will be available to sit from the end of April, with the first approved awards to follow shortly thereafter. Work to deliver on those challenging timescales is proceeding at pace.
Ms Dillon: Will the First Minister also confirm where exactly the money is coming from? That is a concern that has come to me from the victims' sector. Whilst we have been given guarantees that it will happen and reassurances that the money is there, we have no detail of where it is coming from.
Mrs Foster: I reassure victims that the money will have to be found. We have given a commitment that we will follow through on the report and the many recommendations that were put in place, and we intend to do that. We will engage on the issue not only with the Westminster Government but with the many institutions that have been involved throughout the years. It is incumbent on those institutions to step forward as well, not only in a moral way but to make financial redress. That is something that we will continue to take up.
Mr McGrath: Will the First Minister give an update on the appointment of the Commissioner for Survivors of Childhood Institutional Abuse?
Mrs Foster: We are in the process of doing that. If the Member bears with me, I will get him the details. The role of the commissioner is not only to assist victims and survivors through the redress process but to examine the support services available. Work is ongoing to appoint the commissioner, and the interim advocate continues in the absence of one. The public appointments competition for the post will be launched shortly. A competition usually takes about three to six months after an appointment is advertised for, so I presume that, once the appointments process starts, it will be anything between three and six months for the commissioner to be in place.
Ms Bunting: What engagement has there been with the institutions and religious orders regarding their contribution to funding the costs? Also, will the Executive Office make recommendations to have the Kincora files opened? In circumstances in which the inquiry found no state collusion, dates of 2085 and 2060 seem excessive and would mean the victims of that depravity will likely not live to see the files opened.
Mrs Foster: I thank the Member for her question. In terms of the first part of her question, we — the First Minister and the deputy First Minister — want to engage directly with the institutions. The head of the Civil Service wrote to six of the institutions on 25 November 2019 about how we might share costs and about those institutions making records available. However, the deputy First Minister and I believe that it would send a strong message if we both engaged with the institutions as well, and we intend to do that.
In terms of the latter issue that the Member raised, she knows that the inquiry devoted a number of days of oral hearings to looking in a rigorous way at what went on in Kincora boys' home. The Hart report detailed a range of system failings leading to systematic abuse by authorities and staff. For those victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse from Kincora, it is important to emphasise that they can make applications to the redress board for compensation. As I said, that will, hopefully, be in place by March 2020.
Ms Bunting asked the Minister for Communities to outline the average waiting time for an initial universal credit payment.
Universal Credit: Waiting Times
Ms Hargey: This is a crucial area, and, obviously, since I came into post three weeks ago, it has been high up on my agenda. Members of this Chamber have raised concerns, and also groups who work at the coalface of this issue. Thank you for raising the question. It is a serious problem for people who are claiming universal credit for the first time…….
Each week, approximately 860 new claimants for universal credit are due to receive their first payment, with 95% of those paid at the end of the first five-week period. Whilst I am pleased that my staff are able to make sure that most people get their first payment when it is due, I do not believe that it is right to make people wait that long in the first instance, so there is a critical factor that needs to be addressed. I believe that waiting five weeks for the first payment is wrong. It is clear that I need to state that. It also creates real hardship for families, forcing many into debt and having to use food banks. Again, we hear those stories on a daily basis.
Ultimately, I want to deliver a welfare system that is compassionate, and that sits with the New Decade, New Approach deal, where we are saying that we want to have politics that is different, is compassionate and protects the most vulnerable, and a system that is based on objective need to ensure that those who need it get it. My approach is to embed a human rights-based approach in the Department when looking at issues of social security and dignity. I have engaged with a number of welfare groups and campaigners over the past couple of weeks, and among the key points that were raised was the way in which people's dignity is stripped from them when they go through these processes and the impact of universal credit. That is something that we need to deal with collectively. A range of flexibilities and mitigations that were agreed by the previous Executive are helping to offset some of the worst aspects of welfare reform here. One of those is the universal credit contingency fund, which is unique to here. Other places, such as England and Wales, are looking at the mitigations that we were able to secure, because they are having an impact, albeit they do not go far enough……The fund is available to anyone who is making a claim for universal credit and is experiencing hardship, and, to date, it has paid out over £1·5 million and impacted on 7,500 lives.
There are serious issues with universal credit. I have given a commitment to the Human Rights Commission; Professor Eileen Evason, who led on the first round of mitigations; and the Cliff Edge Coalition that I will look seriously at the issue in the time ahead. I also want to engage with Members to look at what further progress and mitigations we can make as we move forward.
Ms Bunting: I thank the Minister for her very detailed answer. As she knows, the delays often extend to three months, which, in some cases, on top of all their other financial pressures, can see clients facing eviction from their homes. What does she plan to do to streamline the process? Will she implement a repayment plan for those who have availed themselves of an advance payment? The entire repayment of that loan is being taken from the client's initial universal credit payment and that often results in extended hardship and means that it takes clients longer to stabilise their finances. Will the Minister consider implementing a repayment plan?
Ms Hargey: Yes, those are the issues that I will be looking at over the coming weeks. Obviously, there are repayments up to 12 months for the advance payments and they can be extended to 15 months under exceptional circumstances. From October 2021, that will extend to 16 months, but we can do more. I will engage with the grassroots who have been impacted by this to look at what the Department can do to set protections and look at changes that we can make. I commit to doing that and I will announce plans in the coming weeks on how I will take that forward.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her answers thus far and congratulate her on her post, as I have not addressed her since she took office. The Minister in her first answer mentioned, among other things, food banks. Since some parties here voted to introduce welfare reform and universal credit, how many food banks have opened here and how many people have been forced to access them for vital support?
Ms Hargey: I do not have the exact numbers on food banks, but I can follow that up. As I touched on earlier, the welfare agenda and making cuts was ideologically driven by the Tory Government. We do not have our own fiscal powers and we are reliant on a block grant. People will remember that, back in 2016, when this issue was on the agenda, threats to the block grant were made and penalties imposed on a regular basis because there was no agreement.
We have the mitigations in place. I made an announcement today, which I will speak to in answer to another question, on extending those mitigations. I will also be engaging with food banks to find out the intelligence from the people who access those services. What more can we do to protect people? Are there further mitigations that we can look at? Are there fundamental changes to the welfare and social security system that we need to make? This is about protecting the most vulnerable and prioritising those who are in greatest need and that is something that I will lay out in the time ahead. Importantly, I will be engaging with those in the sector on the ground who are working with and talking to the people who have been directly impacted.
Mr Allen: I am sure that we, as constituency MLAs, have all seen the impact of welfare reform and universal credit right across our respective constituencies. Is the Minister confident that the IT infrastructure for universal credit is suitably efficient to deal with the number of claims coming through? Will it be able to deal with the capacity of claims when universal credit is fully rolled out across Northern Ireland in respect of new claimants and those on legacy benefits?
Ms Hargey: Thank you for your question. This is an issue that I first raised when I went in to the Department. Obviously, we have not seen the full roll-out of universal credit. We have been looking closely at the pilot in England. We need to ensure that we have the IT systems in place, particularly where we want to mitigate and protect against the worst excesses of the austerity agenda. I have asked officials to look at what additional measures we need to bring in and to ensure that those are costed. I will provide that information in the time ahead. I know, from the questions that he has sent me, that the Member has a keen interest in that. I am more than happy to sit down with you, as I move forward with new proposals, to seek your advice and recommendations and to hear about the experiences of the claimants who come in to your office. I am keen to sit down and have a chat with you.
Ms Bailey: It is great to hear the Minister saying that she will make announcements in the near future about any potential changes that she can make to the awful process that we now have. She said that an announcement will be forthcoming, but does she have powers to make changes, for example, for people who make claims for universal credit and are suffering life-limiting or terminal diagnoses, such as cancer? I have been working for over two years with people who have been forced through the process, are still getting turned down and have to appeal the decision. Does she have the power to, for example, not force that on those people any more?
Ms Hargey: Thank you for your question. I will have a meeting this week with a number of people who have been impacted by the cruel policy of the six-month rule. It is something that I will look at in the time ahead. Obviously, all of that is subject to budgets, because we do not get the additional money through the block grant. I will look at further mitigations to protect the most vulnerable. I will outline my plans, but, importantly, I will look at co-design with the community and voluntary sector and the advice sector and also those who have been directly impacted: the people on the ground who receive those social security protections. I want to listen to them in the time ahead and consider what else we can do. It is not always a financial solution. Obviously, money is one part of it, but we could make fundamental changes to the system to make it easier for people to access and receive the support when they need it. I will look at that issue in the coming weeks.
To ask the Minister for Communities to detail any changes her Department has made following the independent review of the Personal Independence Payment Assessment Process, completed in 2018.
Answer: My Department has been proactively implementing the accepted recommendations from the first Independent Review of Personal Independence Payment (PIP). A number of changes have been made to improve the service for people claiming PIP including the introduction of audio recording for PIP assessments carried out in Assessment Centres from 18 November 2019 and plans are being finalised to roll that service out for assessments carried out in the home in spring 2020.
A new Video Relay Service for British and Irish Sign Language users has been introduced to assist deaf and hard of hearing people apply for PIP and exchange information. Other improvements include more flexibility for people needing to rearrange appointments for assessments and the provision of any reasonable adjustments required for the assessment.
Work has also concluded on the layout of the assessment rooms to ensure there is adequate space for people with mobility aids. Changes have also been made to the PIP process involving receipt of evidence, and amendments made to terminology to ensure it is consistent throughout the process. Revised guidance has been put in place and training delivered for Disability Assessors around self-harm and suicide to ensure it is only addressed where relevant and that this is done in a sensitive and professional manner.
In addition to these specific changes a number of other steps have been taken to improve awareness of PIP and the assessment process including my Department hosting five awareness sessions across NI in conjunction with Capita, Advice NI and the Law Centre. To support this work, last autumn my Department published two short videos which provide information on the assessment activities and scoring mechanism and on what to expect at a PIP assessment.
Mr Andy Allen: To ask the Minister for Communities whether her Department intends to review the definition of Terminal Illness applied in Northern Ireland in the Personal Independence Payment process.
Answer: My Department is already working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) on an in-depth evaluation of how the benefits system supports people nearing the end of their life and those with the most severe conditions. This review includes all benefits which contain special rules provision for those who are terminally ill.
My officials are ensuring that issues highlighted by stakeholders here are fully reflected in the review. As part of this, in December 2019, the Department for Communities held an engagement event in Belfast with expert stakeholders from Macmillan, Marie Curie NI, Age NI, Motor Neurone Disease Association NI and the British Medical Association, to ensure their views were captured and taken into account. I am committed to ensuring local views are heard on this sensitive issue and my Department will continue to work with DWP on the evaluation, which contains three main strands of research:
- hearing directly from claimants and charities about their first-hand experiences;
- considering international evidence to find out what works in other nations and the support they provide; and
- reviewing current performance to better understand how Special Rules for Terminal Illness and Severe Conditions processes operate and perform.
Ms Flynn asked the Minister for Communities for an update on welfare reform mitigations.
Ms Hargey: From the outset, I should state that as an individual, an MLA and, indeed, a Minister, I am opposed to austerity. That will come as no surprise to anyone. I also believe in compassion and human rights for all our people. Those things are embedded, not just in the Good Friday Agreement but in New Decade, New Approach. All the decisions that I make will be based on objective evidence and need. Therefore, I welcome the question, which provides me with the opportunity to set out my stall.
This morning, I announced that the Executive have agreed to my recommendation, in line with New Decade, New Approach, for the urgent extension of the bedroom tax mitigation beyond March 2020. The mitigation scheme provides financial support to people who would otherwise have lost out as a result of welfare cuts. That is an estimated 38,000 households or families that receive the supplementary payments that protect them from the bedroom tax.
In the coming weeks, I will introduce legislation to extend the essential mitigation, which will continue to safeguard more than 38,000 of the most vulnerable households in our society from the harsh welfare cuts that we have seen. The proposal will cost £23 million per annum. Aligned with that, over the coming weeks, I will bring forward regulations on the other strands of the existing welfare mitigations, such as the benefit cap and those transitioning from disability living allowance to the personal independence payment. The cost of that will be around £17·3 million per annum. However, other mitigations need to be looked at, and we need to review the mitigation measures that we committed to in New Decade, New Approach. I will continue to liaise with stakeholders and work with them on co-design and on how we move this necessary work forward. I acknowledge and thank the organisations that I have met in the past few weeks. I have prioritised this area of work…. I thank the Human Rights Commission, Cliff Edge Coalition and Advice NI, to name but a few.
Ms Flynn: I thank the Minister for her response. Will she ensure that the advice sector is adequately resourced so that those who are dependent on welfare benefits will receive their full entitlement?
Ms Hargey: I have asked that the regulations for the mitigation payments also continue the vital annual funding of the advice sector. It is critical that we have advice available for those in crisis. I have to say that there are also skilled staff in the Department and in the local jobs and benefits offices. I encourage any Member who finds someone in need to access independent advice or to go through local jobs and benefits offices. I am keen to ensure that the resource for the advice sector is retained.
Mr Storey: I welcome the Minister's comments on social sector size criteria. It will be novel to see the party opposite vote for regulations this time, because they left that responsibility to the House of Commons the last time. Will the Minister give an assurance that the underspend, for at least the past two years, of £136 million for mitigation measures is still in place and is money that will be available? What will she do in the Department to ensure that there is no further drain on public finances and that the money that was allocated is used?
Ms Hargey: It is an area that I am looking at. The last round of mitigations that were secured played a vital role in protecting the most vulnerable. They were developed over a very short period, of around five weeks, and then introduced.
There were some elements of that that meant, when you looked at it, that the tax system would have taken some of that money if we had paid it out, so, in effect, it was not going to protect the most vulnerable. Announcements I will make in the coming weeks will be around working with the sector and with people who have been impacted, and any future mitigations we want to bring forward will be to really test what works well and develop mitigations that protect the most vulnerable and the larger number of people in our society. I will roll out my plans and my approach to that in the coming weeks.
Mr Carroll: Given today's announcement that the bedroom tax mitigations will be extended, what does the Minister intend to do to help those who lost their supplementary payments when they moved to a house with the same number of rooms because it suited their outstanding needs — for example, people who had to move to a different accommodation to make sure it suited and could accommodate their disabilities? What will she do to ensure that people who have lost out on their supplementary payments will be supported?
Ms Hargey: Thanks for your question. This is a critical area and one that I was acutely aware of. I have closed that loophole in the system, and, therefore, any change of circumstances around moving will now be mitigated for in the new proposals going forward.
Mr Blair asked the Minister for Communities what co-production and co-design she plans to undertake on the outstanding social inclusion and social change strategies
Social Inclusion & Social Change
Ms Hargey: I thank the Member for his question. My Department is the lead on producing a number of strategies that could support the Programme for Government as outlined in New Decade, New Approach. Those include the anti-poverty and child poverty strategy, a disability strategy, a gender strategy and a sexual orientation strategy. The principles and practice of people and community engagement, co-design and co-production will be a key part of the development and delivery of each of those strategies. The approach that is taken will be tailored to each individual strategy, depending on delivery timescales and work that has been completed to date. I am keen to involve people who will be most affected by the strategies at all stages of their development and will ensure that steps are taken to allow them to make a meaningful contribution to that work. I am committed to ensuring that the most vulnerable people in society have their voices heard and their views taken into account.
Mr Blair: I thank the Minister for that reply and her replies so far and in this, my first exchange with her at Question Time, I wish her well and welcome her to her post.
Given the long list of outstanding strategies for social inclusion and change — a list that, perhaps one could argue, has been renewed by the New Decade, New Approach agreement — will the Minister assure the House that the Department will seek to involve a wide range of stakeholders from the outset of any consultation, and that stakeholders will not simply wait until, some way down the process, questions have already been set by departmental officials?
Ms Hargey: I thank the Member for his supplementary question. It is an important area. If we are to take a co-design approach, that has to be built in from the very start. It cannot be just attached to the end. As I said in my opening remarks, we have to ensure that our policies and strategies impact on those who need them the most: service users and those who will feel the impact. They have to be an integral part of the co-design process. That will be built in from the very start.
Ms Sheerin: Campaign groups have been promised a disability forum for a number of years now. When will that be implemented? Can the Minister advise if that forum will be the vehicle for the co-design of a new disability strategy?
Ms Hargey: I am obviously considering the establishment of a disability stakeholder forum as part of the development of the new disability strategy. The role and remit of that forum will need to be considered in the context of the Programme for Government and enhanced arrangements for cross-departmental collaboration. Once I have considered it in the coming weeks, I will outline plans to Members in the time ahead and will say what the composition of the forum will be.
Ms S Bradley: I welcome the Minister's comments about reaching out to vulnerable groups. Can she give an assurance that those hard-to-reach minority groups will be included, particularly those that will be directly affected by any strategies?
Ms Hargey: Thanks very much for the question. It is essential we reach out to all groups, particularly those that are furthest removed. A co-design process works with those who have a lived experience of the topic at hand, and we will look at professional expertise to try to bring both together. We want to democratise those policies and strategies as much as possible, so I will be looking at who can be involved and at how we can use, for example, the community and voluntary sector to reach out to those hard-to-reach communities and individuals. As we start to move through each of the strategies, co-design around the policy development and methodology will be key, and I will outline how we are going to approach that as I move forward.
Discretionary Support Scheme
Mr Daniel McCrossan
(SDLP - West Tyrone)
To ask the Minister for Communities whether she plans to reform the discretionary support scheme eligibility criteria.
As Discretionary Support has been operational for more than two years, my Department had already considered that this was a suitable time to begin a formal and detailed analysis of the original policy. While there was no legislative requirement to review Discretionary Support at this juncture, several key issues inviting further investigation had been identified by officials. This internal policy review has been taken forward by a specially convened Policy Review Steering Group, which has recently completed its consideration of the detailed policy options presented to it. In order to allow for input from key stakeholders and members of the public, further consultation on this review is under consideration. A timeframe for this is still to be confirmed.
Mr Andy Allen
To ask the Minister for Communities to detail (i) how many homes are in severe fuel poverty; and (ii) when they will no longer be in this position.
(i) The Northern Ireland House Condition Survey (2016) estimated that approximately 160,000 or 22% of homes were in fuel poverty. Of those homes in fuel poverty approximately 44,000 or 6% were estimated to be in ‘severe’ fuel poverty. Severe fuel poverty is defined as needing to spend more than 15% of income, including benefits, to maintain a satisfactory level of heating (21ºC in the living room and 18ºC in other occupied rooms).
My Department and our delivery partners in the Housing Executive and local Councils remain committed to delivering the Affordable Warmth Scheme to target and assist those homes most at risk of fuel poverty. Since its introduction in 2015 the Scheme has invested more than £73 million to improve the energy efficiency of almost 17,500 homes. Three factors influence fuel poverty (fuel prices, household energy use and income). Given that two of these are outside my Department’s control it is not possible to predict when households currently in fuel poverty will no longer be in that position. However, the Department and its delivery partners remain committed to delivering the Affordable Warmth Scheme to reduce fuel poverty.
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