COVID-19 Policy update 8th - 15th May

This week's update from our policy team covers information on social security, health, HMRC and answers to adviser's questions.
Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information
  • Official DfC Announcements
  • Help Collecting Benefit Payments
  • MOT 1-year Exemption Announced
  • Coronavirus & Government Services Information from NI Direct
Health Updates
  • Care Homes
  • COVID-19 Stats Dashboard
  • Maternity Website
  • Help for Cardiac Patients
  • Support for Stroke Survivors
  • Safe Shopping
  • Eye Services
  • Routine Immunisations
  • COVID-19 Healthcare Apps
HMRC Updates
  • Job Retention Scheme – Chancellor’s Statement About Next Steps
  • ID Verification for Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS)
  • Video for Making an SEISS Claim
Other Information
  • ‘Internet Access for All’ Petition
  • Frontier Workers
  • Power NI Electricity Prices
Answers to Recent Adviser Queries about Benefits and COVID-19
  • Self-employed / those laid-off
  • Assisting clients remotely, especially vulnerable claimants
  • Financial Support
  • Pausing debt repayments
  • Other questions

Social Security Changes, Announcements, Information

Official DfC Announcements

Executive’s Path to Recovery

  • The Executive published its Path to Recovery document this week which sets out the step-by-step approach they’ve adopted to moving out of lockdown and relaxing restrictions in a way that continues to protect health and wellbeing.  The document considers steps from 1 up to 5 for a range of sectors from work; retail; education; travel; family and community; to sport, cultural and leisure..  Steps aren’t necessarily applied at the same time in each sector.  The full report can be downloaded at this link https://www.executiveoffice-ni.gov.uk/publications/coronavirus-executive-approach-decision-making

Cessation of Post Office Card Accounts

Statement from DfC regarding the cessation of Post Office card accounts for new applicants:

“The Post Office card account (POca) contract is due to end in November 2021 and in preparation for this, the Department is encouraging as many POca users as possible to switch to Direct Payment into a bank, building society or similar account ahead of contract end.

This is to advise you that the Department will no longer offer POca to new customers from 11 May 2020. This is the next step towards moving customers away from POca as a method of payment.

Stopping the on–flow of new POca customers will ensure that we are not increasing the number of customers who will need to be converted to mainstream bank accounts or migrated to a new replacement exception payment services as the contract comes to an end.

Existing POca users will be able to use their POcas for now and HM Government Payment Exception Service (HMG PES) will continue to be available for new payment exception users until a new replacement exception service is available.”

“Note…this change does not affect those that currently receive their payments by POCA.   From 11th May there will be no new POCA applicants but there will continue to be available the HM Government Payment Exception Service as method of payment.  The Department will be working alongside DWP to introduce a new method of payment to replace PoCA from November 2021, and will no doubt be in contact with stakeholders as there is more known that can be shared.  For context on the impact of cessation of POCA for new applicants, there was 45 new POCA applicants in NI from April 2019 to March 2021, and only 1 new POCA applicant in NI last month.”

Update on COVID-19 Childcare Support Scheme

  • The £12m package of measures to support the childcare sector, a joint initiative by the Health and Education departments, is now open to eligible childcare providers.  Application forms for closed and open day care and school-aged childcare settings were issued on Wednesday 6 May, and applications for childminders and the Bespoke Approved Home Childcare Scheme were issued on Thursday 7 May; full information available here https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/news/covid-19-childcare-support-scheme-update

Register for Online Delivery Slots

Delay in Rate Bills

Poverty Bulletin

Parliamentary Question on Current Benefit Rates

  • The following written question was submitted to DWP on 28 April (WPQ 41197): “To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether her Department has plans to increase the rates of (a) income support and (b) job seekers allowance for (i) all claimants and (ii) claimants with chronic health conditions during the covid-19 outbreak.”
  • The answer provided was: “There are no current plans to increase the amount of Jobseeker’s Allowance or Income Support due to COVID19. These benefits were increased by 1.7% from 6 April, following the Government announcement to end the benefits freeze in November 2019.  DWP and HMRC are experiencing significant increased demand and the Government has to prioritise the safety and stability of the benefits system overall, announcing measures that can be quickly and effectively operationalised.  Taken together, DWP’s measures represent an injection of over £6..5 billion into the welfare system and, along with the other job and business support programmes announced by the Chancellor, represent one of the most comprehensive packages of support introduced by an advanced economy in response to COVID19.”
  • Find the question and answer at this link http://www.parliament.uk/writtenanswers

Reappointment of the Commissioner for Older People

Post-primary Transfer Tests

Free School Meals

Coronavirus & Government Services Information from NI Direct

Health Updates

Care Homes

  • Extensive work is ongoing to protect residents and staff in care homes across NI.  Initiatives include:
    • The level of testing in care homes has been significantly extended.
    • The Ambulance Service has this week started to provide a mobile testing service for care homes.
    • Around 2.5 million items per week of free Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) are being provided.
    • A £6.5 million package of additional support has been provided.
    • The 'surge' plan is being reviewed to ensure HSC can respond effectively and appropriately to supporting residents, staff and the wider care home sector
    • Care homes are being asked to check staff and residents twice a day for symptoms.
    • Outreach teams are to deliver specialist care and support to older people in care homes and their own homes, working in partnership with GPs, district nurses, Allied Health Professionals and social care colleagues.
  • Find out more at these links:

COVID-19 Stats Dashboard

Maternity Website

  • A new website has been launched to give advice to pregnant women during the lock down; visit the website here https://www.ni-maternity.com

Help for Cardiac Patients

  • Patients who may have questions about managing their heart condition or about what coronavirus means for their condition can speak to British Heart Foundation specialist cardiac nurses through their Heart Helpline on 0300-330-3311 or through their online support hub which is accessible here https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/bhf-coronavirus-hub

Support for Stroke Survivors

Safe Shopping

Eye Services

Routine Immunisations

COVID-19 Healthcare Apps


HMRC and Employment Updates

Job Retention Scheme – Chancellor’s Statement About Next Steps

  • The Chancellor spoke in parliament on the COVID-19 economic package.
  • He confirmed the next stage of the job retention scheme which is being extended for 4 months, until the end of October.
  • The same approach will apply across all regions and sectors of the economy, including NI.
  • Until the end of July, there won’t be any changes to the scheme as it stands.  So employees will continue to receive the same level of overall support – 80% of their regular wages up to a monthly cap of £2,500.
  • From August to October, the scheme will continue for all sectors and all regions but with greater flexibility to support the transition back to work.  This will mean furloughed workers may start to return to work on a part-time basis and employers will be asked to start sharing the costs of paying salaries.
  • Changes are to be introduced in a measured way, avoiding any cliff edges.
  • The job retention scheme is being optimised to support freelancers and short-term contract workers.
  • Employers unable to top-up wages will have to avail of the direct cash support in the form of cash grants, tax cuts and deferral of certain taxes such as VAT.
  • The Chancellor has been talking to the TUC and others to look at the options for helping those who’ve lost their jobs but there was no mention of any concrete plans.
  • The Chancellor talked about the help available to new starters i.e. those people who moved jobs and were not on their employer’s payroll by mid-March.  He was asked by opposition parties to consider a new starter scheme.  His response was non-committal about taking on any ideas from the opposition parties; he defended his approach by pointing out that he’d extended the date of the job retention scheme to 19 March to include more new starters and he referred to UC and other benefits as an option for those falling outside of that date.
  • Some MPs expressed concern that companies are planning to made redundancies in spite of the job retention scheme and the Chancellor urged that those companies should use the schemes the government has put in place to avoid redundancies.
  • View the full speech here https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-05-12/debates/7B585642-7EC5-456E-8CFF-AC3605AF5473/Covid-19EconomicPackage
  • Read the press release here https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-extends-furlough-scheme-until-october
  • Employees can get information about the job retention scheme at this link https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/hm-revenue-customs/contact/get-help-with-the-coronavirus-job-retention-scheme

ID Verification for Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS)

  • Advisers in the advice sector have noticed that some people are having difficulty verifying ID using Digidentity if they use an Irish passport or a NI driving licence when trying to register for the SEISS.  HMRC confirmed that Digidentity wasn’t accepted for SEISS identity verification, despite it being listed on HMRC’s website along with Experian, Post Office & Barclays.
  • If people are having problems, HMRC have advised that the HMRC COVID-19 helpline is taking manual claims over the phone for people unable to use the online service.  The number is 0800-024-1222 and a HMRC call handler will fill out the form over the phone.
  • HMRC also advised that the SE individual would need to go through the eligibility checker where they’ll be given a date from when they can make the claim; find the eligibility checker here https://www.gov.uk/guidance/claim-a-grant-through-the-coronavirus-covid-19-self-employment-income-support-scheme#eligible
Thanks to Robbie for supplying this information from HMRC.

Video for Making an SEISS Claim

Other Information

‘Internet Access for All’ Petition

  • Participation & the Practice of Rights (PPR) and others are calling for ‘Internet Access for All’, #NoOneLeftBehind.  Advice NI is supporting the call.  This is particularly relevant now as lots of assumptions are being made that people have Internet access when many do not e.g. for online schooling, for online government and other services, etc.
  • Sign the petition here https://www.ipetitions.com/petition/internet-access-for-all

Frontier Workers

Power NI Electricity Prices

  • Power NI, Northern Ireland’s leading electricity supplier announced this week that from 1 July, it will cut domestic prices by 4.8% providing a saving of nearly £30 a year for the typical household; further details available at www.powerni.co.uk/business

Answers to Recent Adviser Queries about Benefits and COVID-19

Universal Credit

1. What are the plans to prepare for the end of the job retention scheme in June?  Could this mean a surge in UC applications?

DfC is anticipating a surge in UC applications and they’re already scenario planning with that in mind

However, that’s all they can do until they know better about exactly how and when the Scheme is going to end, or if it’s going to end for some sectors and not others, etc.

2. What can a claimant do if they’ve forgotten their personal security number or their password? 

If a claimant has lost their personal security number, UC will phone or email them to sort that out

If they’ve forgotten their password, the claimant should phone the inquiry line or their adviser can email Geraldine Brereton at geraldine.brereton@communities-ni.gov.uk

3. ​Is it a normal occurrence for documents uploaded to the UC journal to be deleted by DfC?

This should never happen because all documents have to be retained

If this does happen to a claimant, DfC should be informed so they can rectify it for the individual claimant.
 

Self-employed / those laid off

1. What are the arrangements for self-employed people on UC to move off UC to take-up the grant in June?

Self-employed people will lose their entitlement to UC when the self-employed grant comes through in June

But the scheme won’t be retrospective with regard to UC so they won’t owe money; the grant will be treated as earnings

DfC will be making regulations to reflect this at end of week

DfC still have to check if the same arrangements will apply to legacy benefits; they said they were almost definite that HB will apply in same way as UC.
 

Assisting clients remotely

1. ​How can advisers get support for people whose first language isn’t English and who need interpreters?

Big Word is used to provide interpretation services and advisers should request this if they have a claimant who needs it

During the crisis, the situation with Big Word remains unchanged and it can be used as normal

DfC are unaware of any issues with it

Advisers should contact Geraldine Brereton at geraldine.brereton@communities-ni.gov.uk if they find they’re not being allowed access to Big Word.

Financial Support

1. There’s a scheme now set up where the Post Office will deliver cash to vulnerable customers.  It’s running in England only but is this something that could be arranged for people here?

DfC worked through the detail of how the scheme ran in England – they took the shielding letter and overlaid that with people who had PO accounts – found about 27K people who matched; then they began ringing the relevant people individually to see if they needed assistance; anybody who needed assistance had a bit of a rigmarole to follow to get the help they needed, often being signposted several different agencies/services

For DfC, the crucial issue is about how those self-isolating and only with POs accounts can continue to get access to their benefits payments; DfC tailored their own method to deal with that rather than following the scheme in England; based on the estimates in Britain, the number of people here who fall into this category are thought to be very low

If anyone presents with this issue to the Community Helpline, they’ll hand it off to the Make the Call team who will work with the person and the benefit office to agree, with the person, the best solution for them in the circumstances – it could include changing to an existing bank account, an emergency payment or an appointee action; staff have been fully briefed on the arrangements as a call of this nature could be received directly by any of the benefit offices

Some banks are also putting in place schemes to get people access to their money – this will work for claimants who have bank accounts; Ulster Bank is using vouchers; there are already prepayment cards out in the market and have been there for some time

2. Is there any possibility of adapting the current Cold Weather Payment to cover a COVID-19 Emergency Payment?

The Cold Weather Payment Scheme in NI is defined in legislation so it can’t be changed without new regulations making it impossible to use it for any other purposes

The scheme in the south is a non-statutory administrative scheme which gave them more flexibility in making changes to it

If they wanted to create a payment for another purpose, it would require a regulatory change and another scheme to be set up along with additional funding, and at this time with all the other pressures – staffing, funding – they have no plans to do so

For DfC, the main focus is on Discretionary Support and how it can be used to respond to the crisis

DS is DfC’s primary fund for people in crisis

They’ve prioritised different types of need e.g. top priority is living expenses for UC and the Contingency Fund; next is living expenses for COVID-19 payments; after that is conventional DS living expenses; and finally, white goods – not that they won’t pay for these, but the others come first

DS living expenses has small element that covers fuel expenses

The online DS form is only for living expenses (for UC, CF, COVID-19 payments and conventional DS).

Pausing Debt Repayments

1. We had a query from one of the HAs asking about the PD1 deductions from UC for rent arrears; these deductions have ceased but the housing officers wanted to know what will happen when things are returned to normal.  Will the officers need to reapply or will UC reset the deductions automatically to their previous amount?

Overpayment deductions from legacy benefits will cease for 3 months and that is being implemented at present; PIP has been completed already with DLA, AA, Maternity Allowance to be completed in the coming days

2 letters will be issued as a result of this action:
  • The first letter is auto-generated by the system and can’t be prevented; so the letter goes out to tell people their deductions have stopped and that they need to contact the Debt Centre
  • The second letter will be manually generated by DfC to let people know to ignore the first letter
In all those legacy benefits, third party deductions are continuing and are unaffected by this change

In UC, UC overpayment deductions will cease for 3 months

In UC, all third party deductions, including housing arrears, have stopped but will resume on 11 May – their suspension was for 1 month only, from 10 April to 10 May, and suspension was controlled by DWP

UC Advances/loans weren’t suspended and they’ve continued as normal; again, this is under DWP control

A note will go out on the UC journals to inform claimants about any changes to their deductions

DfC have more latitude with legacy deductions than they do with UC because they have control over the legacy system

Work is still ongoing on ceasing recovery of Social Fund Loans and Discretionary Support.

Other Questions

1. Can people still apply for travel costs to hospital appointments through the HCI form?  If not, someone in the Northern Trust area was told that the Trust might pay 30p/mile if patients were able to find drivers to take them to their appointments.  Do you know if this is true, and whether this alternative arrangement has been put in place?

The HC1 scheme is running as normal and forms are being processed; people should make their claim at the hospital/clinic they’re attending and provide all the necessary details there

Regarding the 30p/mile, we would need to take that up directly with the Trust.

2. Will Bedroom Tax mitigation payments continue to be paid at the 2019/20 rate, and then the upgrade re-examined in June?  Or are they being ceased until June and then backdated?  Some of the HAs have been told there will be no Bedroom Tax payments until June and if this is the case, they’re concerned about technical arrears building up.

All mitigation payments are continuing to be paid and there are no plans to cease them – so there won’t be any issues about upgrading in June or backdating

It’s not the case that there will be no BT payments until June so HAs shouldn’t be worried about technical arrears arising because of this