COVID-19 Policy Update 4 - 10 April

Read the Coronavirus update from our policy team for 4th - 10th April which includes information on social security changes, free training, answers to advisor queries and more.

Contents

Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information
  • Withdrawing UC Claims to Return to WTCs
  • The Tribunal Service
  • Housing Executive Response to COVID-19
  • Official DfC announcements
  • Using Postcodes to Identify Local Council Areas and Trusts
  • Motability Information
  • Before COVID-19 – Application of Regulation 25
  • Other DfC Services
  • Legislative Changes
  • Coronavirus & Government Services information from NI Direct
Free Training – Updated for COVID-19
  • Universal Credit
  • Adviser Training
  • AdvicePro
Health Updates
  • General Information and Factsheets
  • Children’s and Maternity Services
  • Key Workers and Childcare
  • Changes to Pharmacy Hours
HMRC Updates
  • Job Retention Scheme
Answers to Recent Adviser Queries about Benefits and COVID-19
  • UC
  • PIP/DLA
  • Self-employed / those laid-off
  • Assisting clients remotely, especially vulnerable claimants
  • Financial Support
  • Pausing debt repayments
  • Other questions
Contacting Debt Management
  •  Negotiating options

Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information

Withdrawing UC Claims to Return to WTCs

DfC said this week: “As you’ll be aware we have been talking to both DWP and HMRC to see if they would accept back onto Tax Credit people who were previously on Tax Credit and who made a claim to Universal Credit prior to the Chancellor’s announcement.  Unfortunately, despite escalating through our policy people to the heart of HMRC we have got a definitive reply that HMRC will not accept people back on to Tax Credits.  This is based on the legislation and recent upper tribunal and JR judgements supporting their stance.”

The Tribunal Service

The President of Tribunals in consultation with the Appeals Service (TAS) has suspended all oral hearings with immediate effect until further notice.  Anyone who has received notice of a scheduled hearing will be contacted by TAS by telephone and/or letter.

Below is a copy of the TAS letter that’s going out to claimants at the moment; it makes reference to the various options open to the claimant:

"Dear…………………


I am writing to update you on your appeal to the Appeal Tribunal following the decision to suspend oral hearings until further notice due to the current COVID-19 crisis. You will have received a letter to advise you that your oral hearing has been postponed.

The Appeals Service and the President of Appeal Tribunals accept that this will cause inconvenience to you, however we are working together to ensure that this is kept to a minimum.

You have previously informed us that you would like to have your appeal dealt with by way of an oral hearing, before the tribunal.  While you are legally entitled to maintain this choice, this type of hearing will not be available during the current crisis. 

In order to progress your appeal, you are therefore asked to consider the following options:
  • You may still have your appeal dealt with by way of a face to face oral hearing, before the tribunal. However, it is important that you understand that if you choose this option, it could be some time before your appeal is heard.
  • You may choose to have your appeal heard by telephone or live link. We have very limited facilities for this type of hearing. However, we are arranging for these facilities to be made available. It is important that you understand that it could be some time before your appeal is heard.
  • You may reconsider your original choice for an oral hearing and now choose to have your case dealt with by way of a paper determination. This will mean that the tribunal members will not meet you face to face and will decide the appeal based on the written information provided to them.  You will not be notified in advance of the date that your hearing will take place, but you will be notified in writing of the outcome of the appeal.
Please let us know which option you would like to choose, by completing and signing the attached form. The completed form should then be returned, using the prepaid envelope provided or by emailing a copy to us at Appeals.Service.Belfast@communities-ni.gov.uk

It is important that if you have a representative, that you should consider discussing the options with them prior to deciding how you wish to proceed.  If you do not have a representative, you may wish to contact a representative organisation for advice and assistance with this issue and the continuation of your appeal.  

Further Evidence

Whichever option you choose you may wish to consider providing, at this stage, any further evidence which you would like the tribunal to consider at the hearing. This could include, sending in a written statement or asking your representative to prepare a submission on your behalf. It could also include obtaining your medical notes and records which you believe should be considered by the tribunal.  You will, no doubt, appreciate that doctors will be extremely busy over the coming months and it is important not to increase their already challenging workload.   Therefore, it may be of assistance to discuss with your GP or your representative, if you have one, what records would be of assistance in progressing your appeal.

The President assures us that if the tribunal hearing your appeal considers that they require further evidence or clarification of any of the information submitted, it may adjourn your appeal for that purpose. You will be notified accordingly.

 If you indicate that you wish to seek further information or evidence to support your appeal, we will not list your appeal for hearing until we receive the further evidence from you. In view of this, we have also asked you to state whether you will be providing any such evidence and where possible what it will consist of.

 Yours sincerely

 Clerk to the Tribunal


Reply Form

Identity Details:  Name ……………………… Ref No: …………………………………

* Delete as appropriate

I……………………… have read this letter and wish to have my appeal dealt with as indicated below:

Please delete the options that do not apply.
 
  • You may still have your appeal dealt with by way of a face to face oral hearing, before the tribunal. However, it is important that you understand that if you choose this option, it could be some time before your appeal is heard.
  • You may choose to have your appeal heard by telephone or live link. We have very limited facilities for this type of hearing. However, we are arranging for these facilities to be made available. It is important that you understand that it could be some time before your appeal is heard.
  • You may reconsider your original choice for an oral hearing and now choose to have your case dealt with by way of a paper determination. This will mean that the tribunal members will not meet you face to face and will decide the appeal based on the written information provided to them.  You will not be notified in advance of the date that your hearing will take place, but you will be notified in writing of the outcome of the appeal.
Further Evidence

* I will be submitting further information for consideration by the tribunal. That evidence will consist of…………………………………………………

* I will not be submitting further information for consideration by the tribunal.

Signature: …………………………………      Date: …………………………………………

Print Name: ……………………………………………………………”

 

Housing Executive Response to COVID-19

The Housing Executive has set up a page on their web site providing information about their services during the COVID-19 crisis; follow this link: https://www.nihe.gov.uk/Home/News/Housing-Executive-response-to-Covid-19-(Coronaviru

The Executive also has a FAQ page for further information and advice which you can access through the following link https://www.nihe.gov.uk/My-Housing-Executive/Advice-for-Housing-Executive-Tenants/Covid-19-(Coronavirus)

Tenants facing financial difficulties as a result of the on-going emergency should telephone their patch manager for further advice.  They’ll take a sensitive approach to those in financial difficulty.

Housing Benefit payments will continue as normal and anybody wishing to make a new claim or advise of a change in circumstances should phone the Housing Benefit number, 03448-920-902.

All public Housing Executive offices are closed but you can still get in touch by telephone:
03448 920 900 – General enquiries.
03448 920 901 – Repairs.
03448 920 902 – Housing Benefit.
 
The repair service is restricted and will now only deal with emergency repairs e.g. gas leak, electrical fittings coming into contact with water, bare electrical wiring, overflowing sewage, broken external doors, burst pipes, burst storage tanks, electricity cuts, no heating in severely cold weather.  Repairs can be reported by telephone at 03448-920-901 or online at https://www.nihe.gov.uk/Transactions/Report-A-Repair
 

Official DfC announcements

The Housing Executive’s rent increase of 2.7% that was due to come into effect on 6 April has been delayed and won’t come into effect until 1 October 2020, https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/news/housing-executive-rent-increase-p...

A new weekly service is commencing which will see 10,000 food boxes being delivered to the most vulnerable in society during the COVID-19 lockdown.  Many people will have received a shielding letter from their GP and the food boxes are available where people can’t afford food and don’t have a support network of family and friends to help them.  The boxes are also available to those who don’t have shielding letters but who are in critical need of food including, families and older citizens.  More information at https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/news/hargey-announces-thousands-benefi...

Guidance has been issued on the decision by DfC to continue to making grant payments in respect of existing arrangements in the light of COVID 19, https://www.finance-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/dfp/DAO%2...

Scams: criminals are using now familiar terms such as ‘Coronavirus’, ‘Covid-19’, ‘NHS’, and ‘WHO’ to try to trick, scam or pressure people into revealing personal information or financial details.  People may be approached by phone, text message, email, and social media or in-person at their home.  Spoof emails are being sent pretending to be from government organisations with a Gov.uk email address being used.  Common email subjects which are being used include rebates, grants, fines, support and Covid-19.  DfC will not: send emails asking people to click on anything; contact people ‘out of the blue’; ask people for money to use our services.  More information at https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/department-communities-customers-be-aw...
 

Using Postcodes to Identify Local Council Areas and Trusts

 With the emergency food being delivered from the council hubs and Health and Social Care Trusts, advisers will be getting calls from people looking for help.  It’s important to be able to identify the council area or Trust that a person lives in.  You can use their postcode to determine their local council or Trust using 2 online tools:

Motability Information

For claimants with questions or concerns about the Motability Scheme and how it’s being impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown, a FAQ page has been set up on their website.

You can access it here https://news.motability.co.uk/scheme-news/updates-from-the-motability-sc...

Before COVID-19 – Application of Regulation 25

“Dear Kevin,

I refer to your email dated 5th March 2020 to Minister Hargey regarding the application of Regulation 25 and the backdating of claims to Universal Credit. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic Minister has asked me to reply to you.

As discussed with you the Department is fully aware of the provisions under Regulation 25 of the Universal Credit, Personal Independence Payment, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (Claims and Payment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 and already applies it in cases where it is accepted that the provisions of this Regulation apply and will continue to do so as appropriate.

You will also be aware of the actions already in place to address the issues raised by you regarding the wording of the letters being issued by ESA and the delay in issuing of these letters. As discussed with you, in cases where there is a break in claim and the MGP1 process does not apply, Universal Credit will not be aware that the person was previously in receipt of benefit as the legacy benefit will not be in payment. The claimant will therefore need to ask for backdating and as stated above if the provisions of Regulation 25 apply, the claim will be backdated.

As to the need for a Special Exercise, if there are other cases that you are aware of I am happy to review these on a case by case basis.

I hope the above addresses the issues you have raised.”
 

Other DfC Services

DfC continues to support employers who urgently require staff to keep vital services operating.  The free Employers Online NI job service enables employers to register and advertise their vacancies on the same day, https://www.employersonlineni.com/

JobCentre Online continues to operate, providing available vacancies on a daily basis to support individuals who may have lost their job or who are temporarily out of work as a consequence of COVID-19, https://www.jobcentreonline.com/JCOLFront/Home.aspx

The Public Record Office (PRONI) will be closed to until further notice.  Staff are no longer working from the PRONI building and will be unable to respond to any written enquiries or operate a fee-paying search and copying service until further notice.  A range of digitised records, databases and other resources are also available online at www.nidirect.gov.uk/proni
 

Legislative Changes

The Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment (Coronavirus) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020:
  • New regulations have been issued to provide for an increase in the maximum additional amount within the funeral expenses payment from £700 to £1,000 for deaths which occur on or after 8 April 2020.

The Social Security (Coronavirus) (Prisoners) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020:
  • New regulations have been issued in relation to social security provisions for prisoners on temporary release due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak to ensure they have access to means-tested benefits during the period of that release.

Coronavirus & Government Services information from NI Direct

NI Direct has a COVID-19 webpage with up-to-date information on a range of issues relating to the crisis.
Visit https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/campaigns/coronavirus-covid-19

Free Training – Updated for COVID-19

Advice NI has developed a number of courses, updated for COVID-19, and made them available free on Moodle. 

The links below will take you right to the course.  When you get to it, you’ll see a prompt to ‘Log in as Guest’, and this will give you immediate access to the relevant course:

Universal Credit

Adviser Training

AdvicePro

Health updates

General Information and Factsheets


The Health and Social Care Board have made an appeal for people to stay at home while the crisis is ongoing, https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/news/covid-19-coronavirus#everyone-in...

They have also have provided a factsheet about COVID-19 which you can see at http://www.hscboard.hscni.net/download/coronavirus/hscb-coronavirus-fact...

Children’s and Maternity Services

The Health and Social Care Board has plans in place to protect children’s and maternity services.

More information here http://www.hscboard.hscni.net/press/childrens-and-maternity-services

Key Workers and Childcare

Read here about information for key workers needing childcare: http://www.hscboard.hscni.net/covid-19-information-key-workers-requiring...

Changes to Pharmacy Hours

There have been changes to community pharmacy hours.

You can find out more here http://www.hscboard.hscni.net/changes-community-pharmacies-hours/

HMRC updates

Job Retention Scheme

The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme will be open for claim submissions in the week commencing 20 April.  Emails have been issued email to employers and agents to alert them to the latest scheme guidance.

Answers to Recent Adviser Queries about Benefits and COVID-19

This section of the update provides you with a note of the telekit meeting we had with DfC on 7 April. It should provide answers to many of the queries we’ve been getting from advisers and could be a useful reference point.

Universal Credit

1. How has telephony been keeping up with the current volume of calls?
  • 45K UC claims have been processed since beginning of crisis – this is up from the 1,500/1,600 p/w they usually deal with
  • Waiting times on the phone are under 3 minutes
  • 95% of calls are answered
  • 99% of payments are made on time
  • The UC caseload is growing rapidly and the system is under pressure but DfC believe they’re managing it so far
2. ​Claimants are getting text and journal messages asking them to phone or visit the JBO for ID verification.  What should they do when f-to-f cancelled and phone lines are busy?
  • ID verification has entirely moved to telephony and the journal
  • Because of the automated nature of the system, claimants may be getting texts or journal messages asking them to phone or visit the JBO to deal with their claim; or they may be getting messages telling them they’ll be contacted by UC but no follow-up call happens
  • DfC are advising people to ignore these messages because they’re being automatically generated by the system and can’t be stopped (although DfC are trying to see how they can)
  • DfC have said that claims are being processed and no one is to worry about automated notifications; if DfC need to speak to anyone, they’ll phone them directly; and if claimants don’t hear from DfC, that’s good news because it means their claim is being dealt with
  • 80% of new claims are successfully verifying online – this might be because many of the new claimants are more au fait with the technology
  • Claimants who are struggling to verify ID are being contacted directly by DfC; although automated texts and messages are being generated telling people their claim will be cancelled because they can’t verify; again, notifications like this should be ignored and claimants needn’t worry as DfC will make direct contact if necessary
  • Note, if DfC calls a claimant, the number will appear as withheld, so advisers are asked to make claimants aware of that

PIP/DLA

3. With reviews and reassessments being suspended, if someone was sent a review form just before or since the suspension date, should they complete and return the form or should they ignore it and wait until they’re sent a second form after the suspension is over?
  • Charlotte’s PIP note that went out on 7 April will cover this question in detail, as well as other PIP and DLA related questions
  • But, briefly, the answer is that no reviews or reassessments are happening at all, and all reviews or reassessments that are booked are being recalled
  • PIP and DLA awards are continuing
  • Mitigation payments have been extended
  • Telephony is for new claims only – not for reviews or reassessments

Self-employed / those laid-off

4. A lot of people in-work and claiming WTCs who lost their jobs may have made a claim for UC.  But now they find themselves back on the books because of the employee retention scheme.  These people can find themselves trapped (lobster pot) because they’re worse-off under UC than they would’ve been had they stayed on WTCs.  What options are open to those workers?
  • In the last update, DfC indicated claimants could withdraw their UC claim and go back to WTCs IF they were still in their first AP; but if the first AP had passed, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to undo the UC claim; DfC said they were talking to HMRC to identify a solution
  • This week, the update from DfC was stark: people who have claimed for UC but who might’ve been better to remain on WTCs won’t be able to go back even if they’re in the first AP
  • Once a UC claim is made official/valid, a stop notice is sent to end the legacy claims and there’s no going back at that stage
  • DfC have no control over the stop notice being issued to HMRC for WTCs – they contacted HMRC to ask for flexibility around this but HMRC refused and are adamant that once they have a stop notice for WTC, they won’t go back on that
  • DfC couldn’t be clear about the stage when a UC claim is deemed valid – is it the day a new claim is opened, is it when the ID verification is accepted, etc.?
  • There might be some hope of withdrawing a claim before ID is verified so claimants should make the attempt to withdraw their claim at the early stages to see if they can
  • DfC have said that a strong message must go out to claimants that prevention is the key i.e. don’t claim UC until you know it’s the only or best option available i.e. do a benefit check in the first instance
5. Is cb-ESA available to the self-employed?

DfC said that if the self-employed claimant meets the criteria for UC, cb-JSA or cb-ESA, they should be able to make a claim

6. If someone is self-employed and hoping to claim the self-employment income support scheme in June, will claiming cb-ESA or UC in the interim affect them – will they have to repay any payments, for example?
  • Any JSA and ESA payments made to them before June won’t be an overpayment; UC is calculated in real-time for each AP so an overpayment won’t occur there
  • Once the June grant is given, that’ll be counted at that stage and the claimant will need to be careful what they’re claiming from that point forward.

Assisting clients remotely, especially vulnerable claimants

7. What can claimants do who are struggling to get through to DS on the phones?

Claimants should expect to have a longer than usual wait but if they ring and the lines are busy, DfC have asked that they keep trying.

8. ​Can telephone assessments be recorded?
  • There’s no facility to record assessments because Capita staff are working from home and are using mobile phones, etc.
  • But a support person can be dialled into the telephone assessment
9. ​What support is available via phone for the deaf, hard of hearing or speech-impaired?

The Video Relay Service (VRS) is available on the telephony system

10. Is there anything in place to help people who have limited English language skills?

DfC are still trying to determine how Big Word can be used but no additional support is available as yet for these people.

Financial Support

11. ​Will more resources/staff be made available to make the Contingency Fund more accessible to claimants?  Can awareness be raised about the CF?
  • Anybody claiming UC is told about the CF as soon as they make a claim
  • DfC will put out a message through social media too about the CF
  • Extra resources have been added to the telephones to handle CF queries
  • CF will continue beyond March
12. How much money will be available to NI from the Covid 19 Hardship Fund, how will economically vulnerable people and households be able to access it, and where will it be directed e.g. Rate Rebate scheme, increased CF budget?
  • Decisions about what will happen with the Hardship Fund are for the Stormont Executive and not for DfC alone
  • DfC have been allocated an additional £5m for DS from this Fund already
  • Any additional funding will be announced in due course
13. ​What is the current situation with DS?
  • DS is now focusing only on living costs, with that being the priority over household items
  • Only in very exceptional circumstances, on a case-by-case basis, will they consider a grant for household items – advisers should use their judgement to determine if a claimant has an exceptional case and if so, they should bring it to DfC’s attention
  • This situation won’t be changing for the foreseeable future
14. ​Are claimants still accessing UC Advance Payments?
  • DfC said the number of UC Advance Payments has fallen to about a third of usual levels
  • They think this could be because many of the new UC claimants are not typical UC claimants e.g. they might be people who’ve lost their jobs due to the crisis and they have some savings in reserve that they’re using to get them through the 5-week wait

Pausing debt repayments

15. Are all benefit debt/deductions going to be suspended as per the recent DWP announcement?
  • The minister is keen to suspend benefit deductions but there are 2 separate systems to deal with: UC and legacy
  • UC system: DWP is technically able to stop all UC deductions; however, they’re hesitant to do this because there could be unintended consequences e.g. child maintenance deductions would be stopped which could cause more problems for families depending on these payments; DWP is close to finding a solution and DfC will immediately enact any solution they come up with
  • Legacy system: DfC have been trying to identify a solution locally to stop deductions; they haven’t found a way of doing so yet but they are continuing to work on this
  • Housing Benefit: DfC is closer to getting a solution for suspending any HB deductions; they have a manual solution but it’s time-consuming and they don’t have the resources to implement it; so they’re actively looking for an automated solution
  • For now, any new UC or legacy overpayments that arise, DfC is simply not putting them into action so this has the effect of suspending them
  • In the meantime, DfC recommended that claimants contact Debt Management directly to renegotiate deduction amounts; contact details and negotiation options for Debt Management are copied below.

Other questions

16. Are there plans to protect private renters in NI?  Is there any scheme for landlords to access support where tenants are no longer able to meet their rent e.g. the buy-to-let sector accessing mortgage holiday breaks?
  • Buy-to-let landlords can access the mortgage holidays that banks are offering and in turn, these landlords can then give their tenants a rent holiday (although it’s their decision if they wish to do so)
  • Students can also avail of the rent holiday
  • The Coronavirus Act passed on 25 March) extended the notice-to-quit period to 3 months; this isn’t the complete ban on evictions that was promised and only extends the notice required for possession from 2 months to 3 months
  • Housing Rights have further information on their website for tenants and landlords, including information about their mediation service for tenants and landlords; go to https://www.housingadviceni.org/coronavirus
  • Discretionary Housing Payments are also available, and these are available to those not claiming HB or UC; these provide a 13-week safety net

Contacting Debt Management

 
Type of enquiry Business area Freephone number
Recovery of overpaid benefits and Direct Earning Attachments enquiries from Employers Service Centre 0800-587-1322  
Recovery of Discretionary Support loans   Discretionary Support 0800-587-2983
Overpayments of Welfare Supplementary Payments (WSPs) WSPs 0800-587-2985
Deductions for public utility debts   0800-587-2982
For deaf and hard of hearing claimants Text phone 0800-587-2986  

Negotiating options

  • In the first place, the claimant might dispute the decision about a deduction that’s a result of an overpayment.  If so, their first course of action is to request a mandatory reconsideration and then an appeal.
  • Claimants can request that a reduction in the repayment amount be considered.
  • Claimants can request a reconsideration of the amount that is being taken.
  • Claimants can ask for repayments to be delayed for up to 3 months if they’re struggling or if exceptional unforeseen circumstances arise e.g. hospital visits resulting in unexpected and regular bus/taxi fares.
  • Work coaches can pause some repayments in certain circumstances to ensure they are manageable.  This is called a financial hardship decision.
  • UC Advance repayments can sometimes be taken at a lower amount in any given month, for example, if:
    • The claimant hasn’t enough UC left after taking into account reductions such as earnings, capital yield and other income, then a reduced repayment or no payment at all will be taken.
    • The claimant has a Fraud Penalty or Conditionality Sanction the repayment of the advance will stop until these end.
    • The claimant experiences unexpected financial hardship, they can request a deferral of up to 3 months, during which time they will not make any advance repayments.
    • The claimant’s UC award ends, they can renegotiate the repayment rate and period which will take into account their new financial circumstances.
  • A discretionary waiver request is still available as an option.  This doesn’t seem to be widely known as there are very few claimants are requesting waivers.  DM still have the authority to waive recovery of all debt (apart from Social Fund debt) depending on the claimant’s circumstances.  DM will consider a waiver where there’s evidence of ‘detrimental impact’ and it’s certainly an avenue worth pursuing.  A request can be put in writing to:

Debt Management,

Department for Communities,

PO Box 2136,

Belfast, BT1 9RW.