Advice NI Policy Newsletter January 2020



The Advice NI Policy Newsletter

Welcome to the latest in our series of Advice NI policy eNewsletters ‘Think'.

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2020 is off to a great start! Stormont has resumed with a power-sharing deal.

Following months of campaigning by charities across N.I., including Advice NI, the vital mitigations package [which was due to end March 2020] the new Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey MLA has committed to extending the package:
"…. in line with what was agreed under New Decade, New Approach, I want to reassure people in receipt of welfare mitigations that I will extend this package beyond March 31……I will work to challenge austerity and welfare reform and will provide a reaffirmed commitment to protect the most vulnerable and embed human rights standards in all that we do."

Advice NI CEO Bob Stronge responded:
“Advice NI welcomes the restoration of the devolved institutions and in particular the commitment shown by our new Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey MLA, to extending the mitigation package and her commitment to the independent advice sector.”
Please email us at to discuss any policy matters, content, feedback or comments.
We'd be happy to share ideas on areas to focus on, content suggestions and other ways of getting involved.

Best regards,
The Policy Team.

Latest News

Deal to see Restored Government in Northern Ireland


UK & Irish governments invite N.I. political parties to endorse and restore the Executive.

Re: Mitigations:

The Executive will extend existing welfare mitigation measures beyond March 2020, when they are currently due to expire…..A review of welfare mitigation measures will be taken forward as a priority, with any agreed measures in place before March 2020.

Re: Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Scheme:

The Executive will press on with implementation of a redress scheme for victims and survivors of historical abuse, making payments as early as possible

Re: Social Housing:

By introducing legislation to reclassify housing associations, the Executive will enable housing associations to continue building new social housing and intermediate housing, including the Co-ownership Housing Scheme after March 2020. Housing will be included as a specific priority in the Programme for Government. The Executive will also enhance investment and agree a target for new social and affordable home starts and tackle the maintenance backlog for Northern Ireland Housing Executive properties.

Minister for Communities, Minister Hargey MLA stated:

“As Minister responsible I thought it was important that I engage with the Human Rights Commission, Professor Eileen Evason and also Kevin Higgins from Advice NI who have been working on this package with Departmental officials. I want to provide reassurance that over the coming weeks I am going to bring forward legislation to extend those mitigation payments to ensure that we protect the most vulnerable.”

I wanted to meet Les and Eileen at an early stage to give them an assurance that in line with what was agreed under the New Decade, New Approach deal there should be an extension to the existing mitigations beyond March. The Human Rights Commission, the Cliff Edge Coalition, and grass roots organisations have done sterling work over recent months to champion this much needed extension to ensure the most vulnerable in our society are protected from welfare cuts.

In the absence of the various Welfare Reform policies coming to an end we need to protect those most in need and the poorest across our society. These mitigations, and the associated support provided by the advice sector, have proven that they have done that. There is of course emerging mitigations that need to be looked at as we review the welfare system and I will continue to work with stakeholders in moving forward with that.”

Full response from Advice NI CEO, Bob Stronge:

“Advice NI welcomes the restoration of the devolved institutions and in particular the commitment shown by our new Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey MLA, to extending the mitigation package and her commitment to the independent advice sector. This is welcome news for those low income households that rely on these payments to offset the impact of the bedroom tax and the benefit cap. We look forward to working with the new Minister to make this commitment a reality and we welcome the value that Minister Hargey places on our advice services which have done so much to help and support people cope with welfare reform.”

Response from Professor Eileen Evason, who chaired the Welfare Reform Welfare Mitigations Working Group:

“The commitment to extend the mitigation measures beyond March will come as a welcome relief to many. In 2016 the Executive put in place measures which led the way in protecting vulnerable groups from severe hardship. In the light of our exceptional circumstances, I hope that our MLAs will take the chance to maintain, and build on, what has been achieved bearing in mind the challenges faced on so many fronts in the public sector.”

Response from Cliff Edge Coalition, a group of over 100 N.I. charities that campaigned to have the mitigations extended:

“We are encouraged to see a commitment to review and extend mitigations beyond March 2020 to protect low-income households from the full impact of Welfare Reform. With just over 80 days remaining until the mitigations end, we are hopeful agreement can be reached and the relevant legislation can be passed as a matter of urgency.” 

Amended legislation regarding new marriage and civil partnership


In force from 13 January 2020, the Marriage (Same-sex Couples) and Civil Partnership (Opposite-sex Couples) (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2019 (SI.No.1514/2019) enable same-sex couples in Northern Ireland and under Northern Ireland law to form a civil marriage and opposite-sex couples to register a civil partnership.

It also ensures a range of associated rights and entitlements; regarding pensions and social security, children and families, and gender recognition.

DfC Forecasts 


In a new analysis, the DfC has suggested the estimated number of claimants who will be affected in 2020/2021 by the cessation of the Welfare Reform Mitigation schemes on 31 March 2020.

The Department's forecast includes that the total number of claimants affected will be 40,340 and that, of those, 32,000 will be affected by the withdrawal of mitigation for the bedroom tax.


NIHE launches out-of-hours Homelessness Support Service


If you become homeless and you need assistance, if it’s out of hours call NIHE on 03448 920 908.

Those who end up losing their home between 9am and 5pm should still go to the closest Housing Executive office or call on 03448 920 900 to discuss their options.
If issues arise from 5pm onwards they can now call 03448 920 908 for help.


Amended Sanctions Regulations


The Jobseeker’s Allowance and Universal Credit (Higher-Level Sanctions) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2019 on 27th November 2019.

These regulations reduce the duration of the third escalation of a high-level sanction from eighteen months to six months.  The durations of high-level sanctions would then be three months for the first failure and six months for each subsequent failure.

All other sanction levels below the higher level remain as written in the previous regulations.


DfC to replace the contracts for both POca and HMG PES with a single, replacement, payment exceptions service


DfC states that their Method of Payment policy is to make benefits or pension payments directly into a standard account. Because some customers are unable to access or manage a mainstream account, payment exceptions services are made available by DfC.

This obligation is currently met by two payment exception services, the Post Office Card Account (POca) and the HMG Payment Exception Service (HMG PES).  The POca contract is due to end in November 2021 and the HMG PES contract is due to end in September 2020 with an option to extend to September 2021.

It is the intention of the Department that the contracts for both POca and HMG PES will end and a single, replacement, payment exceptions ‘voucher’ service will be introduced.


UK set to introduce ‘Jack’s Law’ – new legal right to paid parental bereavement leave


The Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay Regulations, which will be known as Jack’s Law in memory of Jack Herd whose mother Lucy campaigned tirelessly on the issue, will implement a statutory right to a minimum of 2 weeks’ leave for all employed parents if they lose a child under the age of 18, or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy, irrespective of how long they have worked for their employer.

This is the most generous offer on parental bereavement pay and leave in the world, set to take effect from April.

Parents will be able to take the leave as either a single block of 2 weeks, or as 2 separate blocks of one week each taken at different times across the first year after their child’s death. This means they can match their leave to the times they need it most, which could be in the early days or over the first anniversary.

We await an update and further information on the situation in Northern Ireland.


LHA Rates to Increase


New regulations have been issued in relation to an increase in local housing allowance (LHA) rates in Northern Ireland.

Will Quince (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Welfare Delivery)

“I am announcing that from April 2020 Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rates will be increased in line with the Consumer Price Index (CPI), ending the freeze to the Local Housing Allowance and delivering on the manifesto commitment to end the benefit freeze.
The Rent Officers Orders for Housing Benefit and Universal Credit, which provide for the increase, will be laid in the House later today and a corresponding provision will implement the changes for Northern Ireland

This increase will mean the majority of people in receipt of housing support in the Private Rented Sector will see their housing support increase, on average benefiting by around £10 per month.

This Government continues to spend around £95 billion a year on working age benefits, including around £23 billion to help people with their housing costs.

Ending the freeze to LHA rates ensures we are continuing to support the most vulnerable in society. And, as announced at the Spending Round in September 2019 there will be an additional £40 million in Discretionary Housing Payments for 2020/21, to help affordability in the private rented sector.

My Department will continue to work with colleagues across government on housing, including working closely with MHCLG to find ways to reduce homelessness and meet the cost of living in rented accommodation through good housing supply and a welfare system that supports the vulnerable.”

This statement has also been made in the House of Lords: HLWS26

UC Managed Migration Update 


UK & Irish governments invite N.I. political parties to endorse and restore the Executive.

Baroness Ruth Lister PQ:

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.

Baroness Stedman-Scott Response:

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.

Update as to when Govt enforces the (a) repayment of social security overpayments and (b) prosecutions when the error was made by the Department


UK & Irish governments invite N.I. political parties to endorse and restore the Executive.

Neil Gray MP PQ:

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.

Will Quince MP Response:

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.


Advice NI Updates

Advice NI asked: ESA single claimant, gets SDP, there is then a change of circumstances such as adding a partner to the claim. Does this just count as a change to the existing ESA claim, and so no risk of having to claim UC?

DfC: Unless the customer applies of own accord.

You should have received a guidance alert describing how a customer receiving a Severe Disability Premium (SDP) on a Legacy benefit (IS/JSA/ESA) should not move to Universal Credit (UC) when they hit a natural migration trigger.

The reason for this change in policy is because there is no SDP, or equivalent component, payable on Universal Credit and customers moving from a legacy benefit to UC were suffering a substantial financial loss. This change is to eliminate that loss and to protect the amount of benefit the customer will continue to receive.

Advice NI: Let's say there is no SDP involved, can you clarify the situation where someone joins a single ESA claim to then make it a couple claim, in other words will this trigger a move to UC?

DfC: ESA can accept a partners claim as long as the partner has not already made a claim to UC – the reason being ESA IR already in payment albeit without SDP.


NI Assembly Update

Paul Givan MLA AQ:
To ask the Minister for Communities what steps are being taken to advance the Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations, published for public consultation in 2017.
Analysis of stakeholder feedback regarding the Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations has been completed by officials. The Housing Executive has prepared preliminary implementation plans. I look forward to considering the Review and possible next steps in the coming weeks.
Andy Allen MLA AQ:
To ask the Minister for Communities to outline (i) when she expects to bring forward legislation to extend Welfare Supplementary Payments (mitigations); and (ii) the process she intends to undertake to ensure full consideration is given to what further mitigations are required.
(i) My Department is taking all necessary steps to ensure appropriate legislation to extend the existing welfare mitigation schemes will be in place by 31 March 2020. A date for the introduction of draft legislation to the Assembly is under consideration.
(ii) Officials are currently developing proposals for a review of the welfare mitigation measures as detailed in the New Decade, New approach Deal. I can provide an assurance that as part of the review officials will be engaging with key stakeholders in the independent advice sector. Any proposals for further mitigations will also give due consideration to my Department’s equality and human rights responsibilities. The outcome of the review will be presented to the Executive in due course.
Andy Allen MLA AQ:
To ask the Minister for Communities whether she will initiate a review of the implementation of Universal Credit for new claimants.
Universal Credit was introduced for new claims, on a phased geographical basis between September 2017 and December 2018. This incremental approach over 14 months enabled the Department for Communities to continuously review implementation and ensure that the delivery arrangements were working effectively. The Universal Credit service is working as expected with around 95% of people receiving a first payment on time.
My Department will continue to review, evaluate and make improvements to the delivery arrangements on an ongoing basis, and I am committed to working with external stakeholders to consolidate progress. I am also committed to ensuring the broadest range of protection is available to support the most vulnerable.
Andy Allen MLA AQ:
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.
Doug Beattie MLA AQ:
To ask the Minister for Communities to outline (i) when the Ombudsman report into her Departmentment's administration of Personal Independence Payments will be published; and (ii) whether this report will be made available to MLAs.
My Department is co-operating fully with the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman’s investigation into the administration of Personal Independence Payment. The arrangements for publication of a report is a matter for the Ombudsman’s office.
Andy Allen MLA AQ:
To ask the Minister for Communities what engagement her Department has had with the Minister of Finance or Executive colleagues to ring-fence funding for welfare supplementary payments.
Senior officials within the Department have been liaising with senior officials in the Department of Finance in relation to mitigations beyond March 2020. The Department has provided estimates the future funding required (£40.4m) for welfare supplementary payments as part of the Department of Finance commissioned budget exercises and also to inform costing of ‘New Decade, New Approach’. As Minister I will work with the Executive to extend existing mitigations measures beyond March 2020.
Departmental officials continue to liaise with Department of Finance officials as we seek to secure this funding to continue to provide financial support for claimants who have been impacted by welfare reforms.

Useful Information

Independent welfare changes Helpline 0808 802 0020