'THINK' POLICY NEWSLETTER - February and March 2021

​The Advice NI Policy & Information team is delighted to publish this February and March 2021 edition of our policy eNewsletter ‘THINK’.
Thank you for all the messages of support regarding the Department for Communities proposed Budget 2021-22 allocation which contained no allocation for the independent advice sector to support welfare change. This would equate to a £1.5m reduction in funding to the advice sector. We also welcome Minister Hargey’s supportive comments and look forward to this issue being resolved between the Department of Communities, Department of Finance and the NI Executive.

Recent policy updates and changes are included in this edition of ‘THINK’, including legislation protecting private renters from eviction is extended to 30 September 2021; LHA rates in 2021/2022 to be retained at the same cash levels as applied from April 2020; New regulations provide for amendment of the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) loan payment rules in N.I. We have also included a range of relevant Assembly Questions.

Please email us at policy@adviceni.net 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.

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Best regards,
The Advice NI Policy & Information Team

Latest News

Advice NI welcome the supportive comments made by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey in relation to independent advice. 

This follows the publication of the Department’s Equality Impact Assessment on its proposed Budget 2021-22 allocation which included no allocation for the independent advice sector to support welfare change, equating to a £1.5m reduction in funding.

Bob Stronge, Chief Executive, Advice NI said:

“We really appreciate the supportive comments of the Minister. She is obviously committed to independent advice and the role it plays in protecting the vulnerable. Advice NI will continue to support the Minister in her efforts to improve the Department’s budget allocation and would encourage everyone to respond to the EQIA consultation and the Draft Budget consultation, highlighting the importance of independent advice.” 

Minister Hargey statement:

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has said that those most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic and economic crisis will not be denied access to advice support services.

Statement

Minister Hargey said: 

“It is clear that the draft budget presents very significant challenges for the Executive and across departments with a constrained Spending Review outcome, however one area that I see as being of vital importance is the provision of advice support services that are crucial to helping those people most impacted. My focus has always been on protecting those in most need I will ensure these critical services continue next year as an essential element of DfC’s budget. The Draft 2021-2022 Executive Budget is currently out for consultation and all responses will be taken into account in finalising the Budget. No decisions on the final outcome have been made yet.  Now is the chance for people to have their say on how the Draft Executive Budget will impact them, which will help shape final outcome.
 
 

Private Members Business

Welfare Support

Debate resumed on amendment to motion:

Mr Easton: That this Assembly highlights the need for a fair and sustainable welfare system in Northern Ireland; notes with concern the deep economic impact of the pandemic and resulting restrictions; stresses the need to meet any related increase in eligibility for, or uptake of, benefits and other forms of financial support for those made redundant or suffering ill-health, as part of the recovery from COVID-19; expresses grave concern that the review of welfare mitigations measures provided for in New Decade, New Approach has not been taken forward as a priority by the Department for Communities; and calls on the Minister for Communities to accelerate that review and to ensure that appropriate and ongoing welfare support is made available to households hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic as the Executive chart a course toward recovery.

Which amendment was:

At end insert:

Mr Carroll: ", to overturn the recent withdrawal of funding for advice centres and to reallocate the money to allow for the continuation of vital advice services."

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, accordingly agreed to.

Resolved:

That this Assembly highlights the need for a fair and sustainable welfare system in Northern Ireland; notes with concern the deep economic impact of the pandemic and resulting restrictions; stresses the need to meet any related increase in eligibility for, or uptake of, benefits and other forms of financial support for those made redundant or suffering ill-health, as part of the recovery from COVID-19; expresses grave concern that the review of welfare mitigations measures provided for in New Decade, New Approach has not been taken forward as a priority by the Department for Communities; and calls on the Minister for Communities to accelerate that review and to ensure that appropriate and ongoing welfare support is made available to households hardest hit by the effects of the pandemic as the Executive chart a course toward recovery, to overturn the recent withdrawal of funding for advice centres and to reallocate the money to allow for the continuation of vital advice services.
 

Welfare Reform: Independent Advice Services

Assembly Oral Questions

T3. Miss Woods asked the Minister for Communities, given that Professor Eileen Evason envisaged that independent advice services are a vital part of mitigations to protect the most vulnerable from the harshest impacts of welfare reform, whether she can provide a further update on the discussions that she is having with the Department of Finance and the Executive to secure a £1·5 million allocation for vital independent advice services. (AQT 1083/17-22)

Ms Hargey: As someone who was a community worker in the past and from working with people who avail themselves of the advice service in the area that I live in, I see the value of the independent advice sector. As I said earlier, we have been given a flat budget. It did not include the £1·5 million, but I have given a commitment that I value the role of the independent advice sector. I acutely see the need to continue independent advice, particularly for those who are going through the welfare changes that we face. I will find that money in the budget as we come into the new financial year.

Miss Woods: I thank the Minister for her answer. On 16 February, when discussing the bedroom tax, the Minister stated:

"I have draft legislation and regulations to close the loopholes to ensure that families —just over 220 of them, I think —do not fall through them. I will soon bring those forward for Executive approval, to be introduced in the new financial year." — [Official Report (Hansard), 16 February 2021, p11, col 1].

Can the Minister provide an update on that legislation being brought to the Assembly?

Ms Hargey: Yes, the regulations or the changes that are needed are ready. I had a meeting with officials last week to discuss some of the proposals that need to go through the Committee and the legislative changes that then need to be made.

I will make a further submission to the Executive shortly on bringing that forward before the end of the financial year.
 

Communities Minister on 'On Your Behalf'

Deirdre Hargey, Communities NI tells On Your Behalf:

"There will be no cliff Edge & loopholes will be closed."

https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p09bbknc
 

Legislation protecting private renters extended

Legislation protecting private renters from eviction is extended to 30 September 2021. The Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Act requires landlords to give tenants a 12 week notice to quit period before seeking a court order to begin proceedings to evict and therefore reduce the possibility of tenants in the private rented sector becoming homeless. It was originally drafted to be in place until September 2020 with the option to extend. The legislation was subsequently amended by The Private Tenancies (Coronavirus Modifications) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020, to extend the emergency period to the 31 March 2021. The Department has issued this guidance which reinforces the need for landlords and tenants to work together to make agreements to avert evictions where tenants are struggling to pay their rent due to the Covid-19 crisis.  The guidance continues to be updated to reflect the evolving situation.

https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/node/49870
 

New regulations freeze local housing allowance (LHA) rates in N.I. in 2021/2022.

In force from 28 January 2021, the Housing Benefit and Universal Credit Housing Costs (Executive Determinations) (Modification) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.14/2021) provide for LHA rates in 2021/2022 to be retained at the same cash levels as applied from April 2020 by amending -
  • the Housing Benefit (Executive Determinations) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2008; and
  • the Universal Credit Housing Costs (Executive Determinations) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016.
https://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisr/2021/14/made
 

New regulations provide for amendment of the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) loan payment rules in N.I.

In force from 15 March 2021, the Loans for Mortgage Interest (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.28/2021) -
  • amend the Loans for Mortgage Interest Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017 to clarify that claimants who have fled accommodation for which they receive SMI loan payments due to fear of violence in the home will be able to continue receiving loan payments for that accommodation for a specified period of time.
  • to ensure that those of state pension age in receipt of SMI will retain entitlement to cold weather payments.
https://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisr/2021/28/made
 

New legislation: EEA nationals can continue to be awarded a funeral expenses payment in N.I., where the funeral is taking place in the UK.

In force from 19 February 2021, the Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.15/2021) amend the Social Fund Maternity and Funeral Expenses (General) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2005 (SR.No.506/2005) so that a reference to a 'Member State of the European Union' also refers to the UK. The amendment replicates changes made in Great Britain by the Social Fund Funeral Expenses Payment (Amendment) Regulations 2021.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2021/65/made
 

EU Settlement Scheme applications exceed 80,000 in N.I.

Over 5 million applications (5.06 million) have been made to the EU Settlement Scheme, according to the latest Home Office figures. There are 4 months remaining before the EU Settlement Scheme application deadline of 30 June 2021. The latest monthly statistics show that the majority of applications (4,571,500) have been received from England with an additional 252,400 from Scotland, 83,800 from Wales and 81,800 from Northern Ireland. 

Advice NI helps people in vulnerable circumstances with professional, free and confidential advice. We raise awareness of the EU Settlement Scheme in Northern Ireland and provide practical, digital and language support to ensure that EU nationals make an EUSS application before 30 June 2021.

https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/eu-settlement-scheme-statistics
https://www.adviceni.net/eu-settlement-scheme
 

Digitisation of the Healthy Start Scheme in N.I.

In force from 5 February 2021, the Healthy Start Scheme and Day Care Food Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.26/2021) make amendments to change the way people apply for, receive and use Healthy Start benefits, including through use of an online claim (with a telephone alternative) and electronic vouchers or pre-payment card.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisr/2021/26/made
 

NICVA: Manifesto for Change

NICVA is seeking sector feedback on its Manifesto for Change, which sets out how government can work with the sector, to unlock the full potential of community and voluntary action in N.I. The Manifesto for Change document was prepared by NICVA at the request of the Minister for Communities; to serve as an initial discussion document identifying some of the key strategic issues facing the sector and its future development. The Manifesto identifies three suggested 'keys' to unlocking the full potential of community and voluntary action harnessed by sector organisations:

Key 1 – Improving Government Understanding and Policy on the Role and Contribution of Community and Voluntary Action.
Key 2 – Unblocking Key Barriers and Creating a Supportive Environment.
Key 3 – Valuing the Voice of Community and Voluntary Actors and Civil Society.

in early March NICVA will be holding three online consultation events, each focussing on one of the three key themes (‘Keys’) identified and to create space and opportunity for participants to share feedback. For more details:

https://www.nicva.org/article/nicvas-manifesto-for-change-unlocking-the-full-potential-of-voluntary-and-community-action
 

Supreme Court rules that Uber drivers are ‘workers’ for purposes of relevant employment legislation

In a unanimous judgment, the Supreme Court has ruled that Uber drivers are 'workers' for the purposes of the Employment Rights Act 1996 (ERA), the National Minimum Wage Act 1998 (NMWA) and the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR). On 19 February, the UK Supreme Court handed down a landmark judgment in the case of Uber BV v Aslam.

The Court held that drivers were not independent contractors, but that they worked for Uber and were therefore entitled to certain employment rights. This Insight explains ‘employment status’ and explores what the judgment means and what might happen next:

Uber at the Supreme Court: Who is a worker?
 

Utilities Support for Vulnerable Customers

NI Water Customer Care Register

NI Water offers a range of free additional services if you are an older consumer, have a serious medical condition or need extra help for any other reason.

https://www.niwater.com/customer-care-register.aspx#ccr-form

NIE Vulnerable Customer Support

NIE run a number of schemes to support and help more vulnerable people:

https://www.nienetworks.co.uk/vulnerablecustomers

Power NI

Power NI has a range of services available, including the Customer Care Register:

https://powerni.co.uk/help-support/customer-support/customer-care-register/
 

Benefit Statistics

Latest Benefit Statistics now available

https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/articles/benefits-statistics-summary

The Personal Independence Payment Statistics Summary released quarterly in the last week of February, May, August and November. The next publication will be released on 26 May 2021.

https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/articles/personal-independence-payment-statistics
 

Self-Employment Income Support Scheme statistics: February 2021

The number of individuals claiming the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme grant up to 31 January 2021 by age, gender, industry sector and geography.

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/self-employment-income-support-scheme-statistics-february-2021
 

Expert Advisory Panel Reports on Social Inclusion Strategies

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey published the reports of four Expert Advisory Panels to help inform the development of the new social inclusion strategies. Each Strategy will be progressed in conjunction with a Co-Design Group and Cross-departmental Working Group. It is anticipated that the strategies will be published by the end of 2021, subject to Executive agreement. The Minister stated:

“The reports set out an ambitious vision for an inclusive and fair society.  Their publication will help inform the development of the Executive’s strategies on Anti-Poverty; Disability; Gender Equality; and Sexual Orientation.”  The Expert Panel reports can be found on the Department’s website.

http://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/node/50255

Covid Update

Covid19 Community Helpline Update


By 2nd March 2021, over 40,000 calls to the Helpline were answered.
Freephone: 0808 802 0020; Text ACTION to 81025; Email: covid19@adviceni.net
 
##Budget 2021:  Coronavirus support
The Minimum Income Floor suspension finishes @ the end of July 2021, while the £20 UC uplift, Furlough and Self-Employed Scheme all stop Friday 1st October.
  • Universal Credit: £20 uplift to be extended for another six months
  • Universal Credit: Suspension of Minimum Income Floor ends on 31 July 2021
  • Universal Credit: surplus earnings de minimis at £2,500 1st April ‘21-31st March ‘22
  • Universal Credit: From April 2021, the period over which universal credit advances will be recovered will increase to 24 months
  • Universal Credit: the maximum rate at which deductions can be made from a universal credit award will reduce from 30 per cent to 25 per cent of the standard allowance, bringing forward measures that were previously due to be implemented from October 2021
  • Working tax credit claimants across the UK who have been furloughed, or experienced a temporary reduction in their working hours as a result of Covid-19, will continue to be treated as working their normal hours for the duration of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme
  • Furlough to be extended until the end of September
  • Government to continue paying 80% of employees' wages for hours they cannot work
  • Employers to be asked to contribute 10% in July and 20% in August and September
  • 600,000 more self-employed people eligible for help: access to grants is widened
  • Corporation Tax: exemption for the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. This measure will have retrospective effect from 1 April 2020.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-56266773
https://obr.uk/forecasts-in-depth/policy-costings/

The Resolution Foundation states: ‘The poorest households will face a 7 per cent fall in income in the second half of 2021-22 due to the removal of the £20 a week universal credit uplift, which will take the basic level of benefits back to levels not seen since the early 1990s at the same time as unemployment is due to peak.’
https://www.resolutionfoundation.org/press-releases/chancellor-lays-down-a-big-spend-today-and-tax-tomorrow-budget-but-he-may-have-more-to-do/
 

One-off Tax Credit Payment


If you’re part of a working household that receives tax credits, you may be eligible for a new one-off payment of £500. The new payment is being introduced to provide extra support when the temporary increase in Working Tax Credit ends as planned on 5 April 2021.

You do not need to apply for the new payment. HMRC will contact you by text message or letter in April to confirm you are eligible. You do not need to contact HMRC.
This includes those who, on 2 March 2021, receive:
  • Working Tax Credit payments
  • both Working Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit payments
  • Child Tax Credit payments and are eligible for Working Tax Credit but do not get a payment because their income is too high
If you are eligible, you should receive your payment by 23 April 2021.
https://www.gov.uk/guidance/new-one-off-500-payment-for-working-households-receiving-tax-credits
 

Regulations


The current regulations are in place until 1 April 2021. Reviewed 18 March 2021:

https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/publications/guidance-accompany-health-protection-coronavirus-restrictions-no-2-amendment-regulations-northern

A Summary guide to the restrictions:

https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-guide-restrictions-0
 

Vaccination Programme


The phased plan for NI’s COVID-19 vaccination programme. Implementation will continue to closely follow the prioritisation list recommended by JCVI:

https://www.health-ni.gov.uk/sites/default/files/publications/health/covid-vacc-prog-update-plan.pdf
 

Clinically Extremely Vulnerable appointments


In Northern Ireland GPs have begun to vaccinate the 70-plus age group, and will make contact with their patients in this group, meaning people do not need to phone their GP practice. People aged 65-69 and people who received a shielding letter because they are Clinically Extremely Vulnerable (CEV) can book their appointment online, and will get the vaccine at one of the regional vaccination centres. You can book appointments online at:

https://vaccinations.covid-19.hscni.net/booking?fbclid=IwAR1FNFu7AYBY_K1SIQZ8_19u9nPnyt3fa4f6mWgGqoibpG_l4Lwivixgnsc
 

Covid Vaccination: Simple Guide


https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/covid-19-coronavirus/northern-ireland-covid-19-vaccination-programme/covid-19-vaccination-simple
 

Eligibility criteria changes for Covid-19 Newly Self-Employed Support Scheme


The scheme opened for applications on 3 December 2020 and provides a one-off taxable grant of £3,500 to eligible applicants who started trading as self-employed between 6 April 2019 and 5 April 2020 (broadly on the same principles as the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme). To allow more people to qualify -
  • only income from current employment will be taken into account when applying the 50 per cent income from self-employment rule, with the result that taxable income such as pensions and benefits will not be taken into account in the calculation; and
  • if income from current paid employment is less than £12,000, then the 50 per cent criteria will not be applied.
https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/news/economy-minister-amends-eligibility-criteria-newly-self-employed-support-scheme
 

Extension of the Covid-19 Heating Payment Scheme to those in receipt of specified disability benefits


New regulations have been issued that extend the Covid-19 Heating Payment Scheme, to those in receipt of specified disability benefits, and date for accepting applications is extended to 30 June 2021. In force from 4 March 2021, the Covid-19 Heating Payment Scheme (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.45/2021) amend the Covid-19 Heating Payment Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 to provide that the eligibility for the scheme is extended to include persons in receipt of constant attendance allowance (payable alongside either industrial injuries disablement benefit or war pensions), war pensions mobility supplement or armed forces independence payment.

https://www.rightsnet.org.uk/welfare-rights/news/item/extension-of-the-covid-19-heating-payment-scheme-in-northern-ireland-to-those-in-receipt-of-specified-disability-benefits
 

Jobs and benefits: the COVID-19 Report


The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) and the Institute for Government (IfG) assessed what lessons could be learnt and what issues should be addressed in response to COVID-19. The report assesses the impact of COVID-19 on the benefits system and the measures needed to get people back to work. It makes 3 sets of recommendations as steps towards improving the structure of the UK’s system of benefit and employment support.

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/jobs-and-benefits-the-covid-19-challenge
 

Skills development support scheme will remain free for businesses until end of March 2022


Skills Focus is a post-employment training programme that is open to small and medium enterprises (SMEs), including social enterprises, with fewer than 250 employees.
Last May the Minister announced that the usual 25 per cent cost to businesses would be waived until 31 March 2021. She has now extended that waiver for a further 12 months to further support businesses through the pandemic.

https://www.economy-ni.gov.uk/news/dodds-extends-free-access-sme-skills-programme

NI Assembly

Advice Sector Funding


AQW 14036/17-22 Mr Alex Easton (DUP - North Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities why her Department is cutting funding to Advice NI.

The draft budget presents very significant challenges for the Executive…However, no decisions on the final outcome have been made yet. The Executive’s draft Budget 2021-2022 is currently subject to consultation and all responses will be taken into account when finalising the Budget.
 

AQO 1562/17-22 Mr Justin McNulty (SDLP - Newry and Armagh)

To ask the Minister for Communities for her assessment of the impact of funding cuts on the independent advice sector.

…One area that I see as being of vital importance is the provision of advice support services that are crucial to helping those people most impacted. My focus has always been on protecting those in most need I will ensure these critical services continue next year as an essential element of DfC’s budget. The Draft 2021-2022 Executive Budget is currently out for consultation and all responses will be taken into account in finalising the Budget. No decisions on the final outcome have been made yet.
 

AQW 14693/17-22 Mr Andy Allen (UUP - East Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether she has considered ring-fencing funding for the independent advice sector.

My Department provides funding to the Advice Sector, investing in the region of £6.4m for the delivery of independent, community based advice services annually. The Draft 2021-2022 Executive Budget is currently out for consultation and all responses will be taken into account in finalising the Budget. No decisions on the final outcome have been made yet.


AQW 13188/17-22 Ms Kellie Armstrong (APNI - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities (i) for an update on the review of the Concordat with the Community and Voluntary Sector; (ii) with whom she has consulted; and (iii) to publish an interim report to ensure all Departments are aware of the agreement before budgets, contracts and grants are issued for 2021/22.

My Department is not currently undertaking a formal review of the 2011 Concordat, which formalises the strategic level relationships between government and the voluntary and community sector. My Department remains committed to the principles of the Concordat which applies to all government departments, local government and Arm’s Length Bodies.
 

AQW 13771/17-22 Miss Rachel Woods (GPNI - North Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail the total departmental funding for the independent advice sector for the 2020/21 financial year; and whether she intends to submit a bid to the Minister of Finance for the future funding of the independent advice sector in the next financial year. 

My Department provides significant annual funding in the region of £6.4million for the provision of independent community based advice services, including appeals and help with problem debt. To address the impact of COVID-19 on increasing levels of debt, an additional ring fenced debt levy investment of just over £1million was allocated for 2020/21 for the provision of free debt advice and financial wellbeing support for citizens….The Executive’s Draft 2021-2022 Budget is currently out for consultation and all responses will be taken into account in finalising the Budget. No decisions on the final outcome have been made yet. Protection of services to vulnerable groups will be a key consideration in my Department’s final budget decision.
 

The Appeals Service


AQW 14541/17-22 Mr Alex Easton (DUP - North Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities for her assessment of the success her Department is having in reducing the backlog in Personal Independence Payment appeals.

As a result of the on-going COVID-19 pandemic, no appeals were listed for hearings between 18 March 2020 and 6 July 2020. In response to the tightening of restrictions the President of the Appeals Tribunal took the decision to suspend all face to face oral hearings from 26 December 2020 until the end of February 2021, but this is subject to review. This decision was taken to protect the health and safety of appellants….Every effort is being made to increase listing capacity including securing additional venues for physical hearings that meet the risk assessment requirements for public and staff safety, which is of course paramount at this time.
 

AQO 1424/17-22 Mr Paul Frew (DUP - North Antrim)    

To ask the Minister for Communities how many Personal Independence Payment and Employment Support Allowance oral appeal hearings have taken place in each of the last six months, broken down by venue.

For the period July 2020 to 31 December 2020, there were 588 oral hearings for Personal Independence and 29 Employment Support Allowance appeals. There have been 242 physical hearings in Belfast (204), Ballymena (18) and Newry (20), a further 408 have been conducted via telephone and 118 via video link. There have been also been 638 determined as paper hearings making a total of 1,406 hearings across all hearing types for this period. This is a significant reduction in comparison to previous years and is a direct result of the pandemic.

The number of local venues that were readily available and equipped to accommodate socially distant physical hearings was greatly reduced. A growing number of venues have now been adapted to be covid secure for everyone attending a benefit hearing and listing had resumed before Christmas. However the new restrictions have unfortunately led to further postponements. Listing of physical hearings will resume urgently, as soon as it is deemed appropriate to do so for appellants who can be amongst the most vulnerable within our communities.
 

AQW 14235/17-22 Ms Kellie Armstrong (APNI - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities for an update on the Appeals Service backlog; and whether there will be any financial support for those who are waiting on an appeal decision due to the delays.

In order to maximise listing capacity, The Appeals Service (TAS) has introduced additional options for case listing. Appellants can now choose to have their appeal listed on the papers, by telephone, video link or face to face. Paper hearings and remote hearings are listed consistently in response to demand.

A number of venues have been identified and adapted to ensure they are COVID secure for all parties to attend a physical hearing while work is continuing to find additional venues to list benefit appeal hearings. Hearings in these venues commenced in December 2020 and January 2021 but in response to the new restrictions announced, the President of the Appeals Service has postponed face to face hearing until the end of February 2021 when it will be reviewed in light of the advice available. Customers receiving a Welfare Supplementary Payment who have an ongoing appeal following reassessment from DLA are not affected by the delay in appeal hearings as the Welfare Supplementary Payment regulations stipulate that this must remain in payment until the decision of the appeal tribunal is received by the Department.

 

Heating Payments & PIP
 

AQW 13187/17-22 Ms Kellie Armstrong (APNI - Strangford)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether she will bring forward a further statutory rule to enable COVID-19 heating payments to be provided for people whose delayed Personal Independence Payment appeal is successful and who should have been in receipt of qualifying benefits during the qualifying week.

Payments will be made automatically to people where a successful appeal results in a retrospective award for one of the qualifying benefits for the scheme during the qualifying week. These payments will be made under the existing Covid-19 Heating Payment Scheme Regulations without the need for a further statutory rule as people in these circumstances will have met the existing eligibility criteria.

 

PIP


AQW 14498/17-22 Mr Maurice Bradley (DUP - East Londonderry)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether consideration has been given to improve the current Personal Independence Payment telephone assessments, which are being undertaken during the pandemic as an alternative to face-to-face meetings.

A number of improvements have been implemented to PIP telephone assessments. These include: a Video Relay Service to assist customers with hearing or speech impairments; and 3-way calling to enable a customer’s companion to support them during the assessment. Audio recording of telephone assessments is planned from Spring 2021 and a proof of concept to test video assessments has commenced. Also, a customer survey of the telephone assessments service has been commissioned …Robust quality assurance processes..[include] audit and observing telephone assessments to ensure quality.
 

AQW 13525/17-22 Mrs Dolores Kelly (SDLP - Upper Bann)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether her Department is examining the possibility of bringing personal independence payment assessments in-house instead of outsourcing them to private sector companies; and what is the timeframe for its implementation.

The Department is currently developing a Business Case that will appraise all of options for the future delivery of health assessment services from August 2023, including in-housing the service. It is estimated that this appraisal will complete by Spring 2021.



Mitigations


AQW 13539/17-22 Mr Andy Allen (UUP - East Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether she will seek the use of accelerated passage to extend and strengthen welfare mitigations beyond March 2021.

I can confirm that I intend to introduce new primary and subordinate legislation to provide for an extension of the existing welfare mitigation schemes. I am personally committed to introducing this legislation as a matter of urgency. The approach to take with the passage of the legislation remains under consideration.
 


Cost of Work Alliance


AQW 13481/17-22 Mr Alex Easton (DUP - North Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities why the Cost of Work Allowance scheme was not brought into Northern Ireland to help lone parents and childcare costs.

The Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group recommended the introduction of a Cost of Work Allowance as part of the package of welfare mitigation measures. The Working Group recommendation was for payments to be available to people claiming either Working Tax Credit or Universal Credit with a special weighting for lone parents taking account of the cost of  childcare. The scheme was to be delivered over a three year period ending on 31 March 2020….the Department was advised by HMRC that payments would be treated as taxable income... In view of the estimated impact of personal taxation on the value of Cost of Work Allowance payments to individuals it was the Department’s assessment that the scheme could not be progressed until the return of the Assembly. The introduction of a Cost of Work Allowance scheme for low-income working families is expected to be included in the forthcoming review of welfare mitigation measures.



HIA


AQO 1442/17-22 Mr Christopher Stalford (DUP - South Belfast)

To ask the First Minister and deputy First Minister for an update on delivering a redress scheme for victims of historical institutional abuse.

The Historical Institutional Abuse Redress Board opened to applications on 31 March 2020, with the first payments of compensation being made some seven weeks later. By the end of December 2020 the HIA Redress Board had received 959 applications for compensation, made determinations totalling £7.38 million and paid out £5.76 million of redress….each application is determined by an independent panel consisting of one judge and two panel members with a social care background. The level of award is determined by the panel based on the evidence before it and the level and severity of the abuse suffered by the applicant.
 


Universal Credit


AQW 13825/17-22 Mr Mark Durkan (SDLP - Foyle)

To ask the Minister for Communities what action she has taken to ensure that payment of COVID-19-related support grants to workers is not included in assessments of income for the purpose of Universal Credit.

I have taken a number of steps to ensure that COVID-19 payments are not included when calculating a person’s Universal Credit entitlement.

The Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) interacts with Universal Credit in that grants are treated as self-employment earnings and are taken into account in the month that they are received. SEISS grant payments are taken into account following a deduction for allowable expenses, and contributions, plus any tax and National Insurance contributions that have been paid to HMRC in that month. Of the amount left, 63% is taken into account in the Universal Credit calculation. In addition, those with children or who have (or their partner) been found unfit for work, will also have part of their earnings, including the SEISS grant, disregarded under the work allowance. Payments from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme are not taken into account as earnings for a self-employed person, where that person has applied to the scheme to secure support for their employees and where payments are to be passed on to those employees.

Where a self-employed person receives coronavirus support via a loan or grant to help aid their business, those support payments are not taken into account as income and are instead treated as capital to be disregarded for 12 months for the purposes of Universal Credit. In addition, the following COVID-19 payments will not be taken into account as income in in the Universal Credit award -
  • one-off grant payments under the Department for Economy’s New Self-Employed Support Scheme, which provides financial support to newly self-employed people whose business is impacted by Covid-19 and who have not been able to access support from the SEISS;
  • one-off payments under the Department for Infrastructure’s Taxi Driver Financial Assistance Scheme provided to help with directly incurred overhead costs and expenses;
  • a grant payment made under the Department of Education’s Childcare Sustainability Support Fund which provides help with additional costs of operating within Covid-19 guidance and provides financial support to childcare providers operating with reduced demand for services; and
  • help from charities to those who have been unable to access either the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme or SEISS, for example freelance screen industry workers.
I have also written to Thérèse Coffey, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions requesting that urgent consideration is given to ensuring that the proposal by the Department of Health to make a one off payment of £500 to key workers …is disregarded from social security benefits.
 

AQW 13479/17-22 Mr Alex Easton (DUP - North Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities what her Department can do to prevent pay back of Advanced Payments, especially if the claim for Universal Credit is approved.

Anyone suffering financial hardship when making their Universal Credit claim can apply for a non-repayable grant through the Universal Credit Contingency Fund. They do not need to take an Advance Payment before claiming the Contingency Fund grant. This is unique support, only available to people claiming Universal Credit here. Information about the Contingency Fund grant is provided to everyone making a claim through a welcome message on their on-line journal account. People are advised of the Contingency Fund grant before any reference to the Advance Payment option. The message also includes a link to the Contingency Fund application form.

With respect to the Advance Payment, currently people have up to 12 months to pay back the advance payment. This can be extended to 15 months if a person is experiencing financial difficulty. The repayment period will be extended to 24 months for all claims from October 2021. It is not possible for my Department, as these are advances of a person’s Universal Credit award, to prevent pay back of Advanced Payments. However...anyone experiencing financial hardship in repaying an Advance Payment can contact the Department’s Debt Management team, on 0800 587 1322, to discuss the options available to them.
 

AQO 1566/17-22 Ms Sinéad Bradley (SDLP - South Down)

To ask the Minister for Communities for her assessment of the operation of split payments in Universal Credit.

Firstly, I would like to state that I am committed to protecting and assisting the most vulnerable in our society and recognise the importance of the ability to be able to split a Universal Credit payment, particularly for victims of domestic violence and their families. With respect to the operation of split payments in Universal Credit, while the payment process is not currently automated, a manual process is in place. A person can request at any point in the life of the claim that their payment is split between both partners. They can do this by using their online journal or by contacting their Service Centre on 0800 012 1331. There are no preconditions for asking for a split payment. When deciding how the payment should be split the Decision Maker will consider the person and their partner’s circumstances and take account of factors such as any pattern of domestic violence and/or abuse that has been verified and who is the main carer of any children. There are currently five live claims that are being paid as split payments between two partners.
 


6-month Rule


AQW 13851/17-22 Ms Joanne Bunting (DUP - East Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities what additional assistance she intends to provide to those terminally ill welfare claimants who cannot reasonably meet the 6-month life expectancy criterion, given the abolition of this rule is not included in the current draft budget despite the 8 July 2020 High Court ruling that it was discriminatory. 

As you know additional recurring costs resulting from any option to change the special rules for terminal illness, that breaks social security parity with Britain, will need to be borne by the Executive’s block grant. I am committed to supporting those in most need, including those requiring access to Special Rules for Terminal Illness. I welcome the Assembly supporting this position also. When final decisions have been taken in relation to the 2021/22 budget, the Department will consider options available.



Food Poverty


AQW 13117/17-22 Mr Doug Beattie MC (UUP - Upper Bann)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether a food poverty strategy will be in place when the current food hamper provision ends.

The food box scheme which delivered over 200,000 food boxes ended in July 2020….My Department has also invested in support to Fareshare, a food distribution charity, to ensure adequate food infrastructure and additional supply is in place across the north to the end of March 2021. In addition, my department is launching a £1m bulk food scheme later this month, which will bolster stock levels of community food providers between now and the end of March. In the medium term, my intention is to move towards more sustainable interventions such as Social Supermarkets, which seeks to address the causes of food poverty rather than simply provide food. Food insecurity is one symptom of poverty – for the longer term, this will be considered within the context of an Anti-Poverty Strategy, which is currently being developed through a process of co-design.



Warm, Well, Connected Scheme


AQW 13485/17-22 Mr Paul Givan (DUP - Lagan Valley)

To ask the Minister for Communities for how long the Warm, Well and Connected programme will continue to issue support.

The community wellbeing projects will run until the end of March 2021. There is a budget of £750,000 for direct fuel support and a flexible approach is being taken as to the timing of this expenditure to ensure that support best meets needs; however, it will not run beyond March 2021.

Parliamentary Questions

Universal Credit

 

UIN 149290 Vicky Foxcroft, Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what steps are taken to inform a universal credit claimant who is vulnerable and unable to access their journal of the outcome of their Work Capability Assessment.

Justin Tomlinson, Conservative. Answered on 12 February 2021
Since March 2020, in all cases where a claimant is found fit for work the claimant will receive a call to talk through the Work Capability Assessment outcome and to ask about any changes since the assessment. There are currently no home visits, and the COVID easements in place do not allow for the claimant to have a face to face assessment, so full importance is put on the conversation the Decision Makers have with the claimant.

If the Decision Maker is not able to speak with the claimant a case conference is held, before the decision is uploaded, and in conversation with the Health Care Professional Advice line. If there is any doubt of risk with the claimant the case will be referred back for a face to face assessment when the easements are lifted. If during the course of the decision making process a safeguarding issue is identified the Decision Maker will make a referral to a Senior Safeguarding Lead who will engage with other agencies to support the customer.

The decision outcome notifications provide adequate information for disabled and seriously unwell people to decide whether to request a Mandatory Reconsideration of the Department’s decision. The notification clearly explains what information has been taken into account to decide whether the claimant would have difficulty in carrying out work related activities. It explains that the claimant can ask for a more detailed written explanation either via the Journal or by Telephone. It also advises that this needs to be done within one month of the date of the letter, and that the claimant can ask someone who has authority to act for them.

It advises that if the claimant has further information or if they think the department has overlooked something they can ask the Department to reconsider the Decision. This has to be done within one month of the letter. Following this it explains they will receive a letter called a Mandatory Reconsideration Notice and if they disagree with the Mandatory Reconsideration they can appeal to the tribunal.
 

UIN 151764 Alan Brown, Scottish National Party

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what changes she has made to the universal credit system to comply with the Court of Appeal judgement of 22 June 2020 on assessing two wage payments received within a single assessment period.

Will Quince, Conservative. Answered on 16 February 2021:

The Universal Credit (Earned Income) Amendment Regulations 2020 were laid in October 2020, so for cases affected by this issue, monthly earnings can be reallocated to another assessment period. To support this, we have designed a tool which interacts with the Universal Credit Service to allow the redistribution of earnings where appropriate, with guidance having been issued to staff to ensure that where an issue is identified, the correct remedial action is taken.

Automated identification of affected claimants is expected to be implemented in early 2021. This will allow us to proactively correct Universal Credit awards before they are paid without the claimant needing to raise the issue.
 

Single Digital Platform: PIP & ESA

 

UIN 152585 Vicky Foxcroft, Labour.

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what progress his Department has made on piloting a new IT system to deliver assessments for personal independence payments and the Work Capability Assessments in employment support allowance and universal credit using a single digital platform.

Justin Tomlinson, Conservative. Answered on 24 February 2021

We had started to test a single digital platform in a small number of assessment centres but this was paused due to the impact of COVID-19. We have been reviewing our delivery plans and expect the IT development to form part the work of the new Departmental Transformation Area (DTA). The DTA will provide a safe environment to test, adapt and learn from new ideas and processes before rolling out at a greater scale, and ultimately nationally. The first site in the DTA will be in London and is scheduled to start from April 2021. This approach recognises that our claimants include some of the most vulnerable in society and it is critical that we carefully develop the new integrated health assessment service.