'THINK' POLICY NEWSLETTER - January 2021


The Advice NI Policy & Information team is delighted to publish this January 2021 edition of our policy eNewsletter ‘THINK’.
Shocking news re the Department for Communities proposed Budget 2021-22 allocation also includes no allocation for the independent advice sector to support welfare change. This equates to a £1.5m reduction in funding to the advice sector.

We have taken the opportunity to highlight our recent Briefing Papers; highlighted the removal of the severe disability premium (SDP) Gateway and eligibility for SDP transitional protection in Universal Credit for new claimants; provided an update on a range of social security issues, including both Assembly and Parliamentary questions; EU exit and benefits; Post Office Card Account update; eligibility for the Covid19 Heating Payment; furlough extension until April 2021 … and yes you’ve guessed it, much, much more!!!
 
The team have also organised the first in a monthly series of ‘Inspirational Speaker’ webinars aimed at ‘imagining better’. Thank you to Sara Williams, author of the blog Debt Camel for being our first speaker.

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.

If you want to get 'THINK' delivered straight to your inbox, sign up with this link.

Best regards,
The Advice NI Policy & Information Team

Latest News

Advice NI Briefing Papers

The Policy Team have been compiling briefs on subjects that will be relevant to advisers and their clients.  If you want to discuss anything in the papers, contact the Policy Team at Advice NI.  

Kevin Higgins of Advice NI on Universal Credit and help with benefits

From: On Your Behalf

Kevin Higgins of Advice NI on Universal Credit and help with benefits
 

Department for Communities proposed Budget 2021-22 allocation

The Department’s proposed Budget 2021-22 allocation includes no allocation for the independent advice sector to support welfare change. This equates to a £1.5m reduction in funding to the advice sector which provides help and support to some of the most vulnerable in our society, including young people, older people and people with disabilities. Lack of funding for the advice sector, is also likely to impact on a number of Section 75 categories.

Equality Impact Assessment - Draft DfC Budget 2021-2022 - Department for Communities (communities-ni.gov.uk)
Advice NI to lose 45 staff under 'challenging' draft budget - BBC News
Benefits system in ‘dire situation’ over lack of funding, MLAs told - BelfastTelegraph.co.uk
Good Morning Ulster - 29/01/2021 - BBC Sounds
Commissioner for Older People, Energy Saving, Parenting NI

#StopAdviceSectorCuts
 

New regulations re: removal of the severe disability premium (SDP) Gateway and eligibility for SDP transitional protection in UC for new claimants.

In force from 27 January 2021, the Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) (Claimants previously entitled to a severe disability premium) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.2/2021) - which make corresponding provision to that provided for in Great Britain by SI.No.4/2021 - substitute a new Schedule 2 to the Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 (SR.No.226/2016) to provide the criteria for payments of SDP transitional protection going forward, when people in receipt of SDP will no longer be prevented from claiming universal credit when the SDP Gateway is revoked from 27 January 2021.

NB - SR.No.152/2019 (the 2019 Regulations) amended the Universal Credit (Transitional Provisions) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 to introduce an SDP Gateway and 'SDP transitional payments’. Awarded outside the calculation of universal credit, claimants are eligible for transitional payments where they are in receipt of the SDP as part of their award of income-based jobseeker's allowance (JSA), income-related employment and support allowance (ESA), or income support, and moved to universal credit following a relevant change in their circumstances. Since 8 October 2020, all existing SDP transitional payments have been converted to a universal credit transitional element.

The regulations also include provision for the amount of the SDP transitional element for new claimants.

https://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisr/2021/2/made
 

Communities Minister Update

  • Looking at possible mitigation of the two child policy
  • Jobstart
  • PIP Assessment
  • Children in Poverty
  • Recognises fuel poverty a growing issue - Discussed eligibility criteria of Covid19 Heating Payment (payable at end of January)
See NI Assembly Questions section for more information.

 

Northern Ireland Government confirms intention to introduce parental bereavement leave and pay entitlement akin to that already in force in GB

The Northern Ireland Government has confirmed that it intends to introduce parental bereavement leave and pay entitlement corresponding to that which has been in place in Great Britain since 6 April 2020.

In its response to its June 2020 consultation on parental bereavement leave and pay, the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy said today that its proposals for reform broadly mirror the parental bereavement provisions in Great Britain.

Minister announces publication of assessment and response to Parental Bereavement Leave and Pay consultation | Department for the Economy (economy-ni.gov.uk)
  

Launch of Concept of Poverty: 2nd Edition

Poverty remains one of the most urgent issues of our time. In this fully updated edition of her important and widely acclaimed intervention on the topic, Ruth Lister introduces readers to the meaning and experience of poverty in the contemporary world. Click here to read the blog.

Ruth Lister is a member of the House of Lords and Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University. The second, fully updated edition of her widely acclaimed book, Poverty, is now available from Polity.
 

EU Exit and benefits

There is an agreement on social security between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The agreement allows for existing reciprocal social security rights for UK and Irish citizens (and for certain of their family members and surviving family members) under the Common Travel Area (CTA) arrangements and the law of the European Union protected following EU Exit. There will be no change to the shared social welfare arrangements between the UK and Ireland that are currently in place.

Common Travel Area (CTA)

In May 2019 the UK and Irish Governments signed a new Memorandum of Understanding on the CTA which guarantees there will be no changes to the rights of British citizens in Ireland/Irish citizens in the UK as a result of the UK’s exit from the EU. This means that no matter what happens when the UK leaves the EU:
  • The rights and entitlements of both Irish citizens in the UK and British citizens in Ireland to social welfare payments will remain as they were before the UK’s exit from the EU
  • Irish and British citizens living in either country will maintain the right to benefit from social insurance contributions made when working in either country and to access social insurance payments in either country
Existing payments will not change and there will be no change in the way new applications to social security for British citizens in Ireland and Irish citizens in the UK are assessed.

Accessing social security benefits in the Common Travel Area (CTA)

If you are a British or Irish citizen residing or working in the other’s state, working in both states or working across the border you are subject to only one state’s social security legislation at a time. You can access social security benefits and entitlements, including pensions, from whichever state you are subject to the social security legislation of, regardless of where you are living. When working in the CTA, you pay into only one state’s social security scheme at a time and are entitled, when in the other state, to the same social security rights, and are subject to the same obligations, as citizens of that state. You also have the right to access social security benefits on the same basis as citizens of the state you are in.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-agrees-deal-to-protect-social-security-rights-of-uk-and-irish-citizens-living-and-working-in-each-other-s-state

https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/eu-exit-and-benefits
 
Useful Links:  

Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes

Irish PM Mr Martin issued a full apology on behalf of the state in the Dáil (Irish parliament). He said the report highlighted a "profound failure" of empathy, understanding and compassion over a long period. There have also been calls for an inquiry into mother and baby homes in Northern Ireland. Stormont commissioned research into whether or not there should an inquiry held into the homes which operated in Northern Ireland, is due to be published by the end of January. For Historical Institutional Abuse advice and support, ring Advice NI on 02890 645919, and ask for an HIA adviser.

Irish PM apologises over mother and baby homes

Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes
 

Northern Ireland Housing Statistics report

This report is an annual compendium of statistics containing information on a range of areas relating to housing.
 

Post Office Card Account

The Department for Communities (DfC) will no longer offer Post Office card accounts (POcas) to new customers from May 2020. POca customers may continue to use their POcas and the HMG Payment Exception Service (HMG PES) will continue to be available for new payment exception users, until a new replacement exception service is in place.

In preparation for the end of the POca contract, the Department is encouraging as many POca customers as possible to switch to a mainstream account such as a bank, building society or similar account of their choice. Direct Payment into a mainstream account is the Department’s preferred method of payment as it is considered to be the most efficient, secure, reliable and economical method of payment. Indeed, the Covid pandemic has highlighted the limitations of the POca and reinforced the need for customers to make the switch to a mainstream account as this will allow them to purchase food and other essentials by phone or online. For those customers who are unable to access or manage a mainstream account the Department will offer a new Payment Exception Service.

This is to advise you that DWP, on behalf of DfC, will be issuing a new letter to all POca customers who had previously received a conversion letter as well as contacting POca customers over 90 years of age for the first time. This letter will inform customers that they can continue to use their POcas until their account closes at which point, their benefit and pension payments will be paid into a new Payment Exception Service if they haven’t switched to an alternative method of payment of their choice.

To assist customers in choosing an account that is right for their circumstances, which may include an exception service, a range of support services are available:
  • A dedicated free telephone service (0800 085 7133) has been set up within the DWP which offers NI POca customers an opportunity to ask questions and seek support in choosing an account that meets their needs.
  • DfC’s ‘Make the Call Wraparound’ service, which can be accessed at 0800 232 1271 or makethecall@dfcni.gov.uk can offer advice on which payment method will best meet their needs.
  • For free, independent help with money and financial decisions, Advice NI can be contacted on 0808 802 0020 or via www.adviceni.net/money-talks Advice NI contact details have also been included in the letters being issued to NI customers.
  • Customers can also can contact the Money Advice Service on 0800 138 7777. There are many free basic bank accounts and help is available so customers can get information about the type of account that is right for them by searching for ‘choosing a bank account’ on www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk
 

High Court: Requirement for UC claimants to pay childcare costs upfront before receiving childcare costs element is unlawful

In a new judgment, the High Court has ruled that the requirement for universal credit claimants to pay their childcare costs upfront before receiving the childcare costs element (CCE) is unlawful.

Introducing his judgment in Salvato, R (On the Application Of) v Secretary of State for Work and Pensions [2021] EWHC 102 (Admin) (22 January 2021), Mr Justice Chamberlain highlights that the case is about the mechanism for assessing and paying the CCE under the Universal Credit Regulations 2013 (the UC Regulations), and that -

'The mechanism uses monthly 'assessment periods' and, in general, makes payments in arrears. The effect of the UC Regulations is that a claimant is entitled to be paid the CCE as part of her universal credit award only if she has already paid the charges, rather than merely incurred them. Claimants therefore have to find ways of paying the charges from their own funds. They will only be reimbursed several weeks afterwards. The Claimant calls this the Proof of Payment Rule'. (paragraph 2)

Working Mum Wins Her Claim Challenging The Requirement For Parents On Universal Credit To Meet Childcare Costs Upfront | Leigh Day
 

Labour Market Statistics

https://www.nisra.gov.uk/publications/labour-market-report-january-2021
 

Covid Update

COVID-19 Heating Payment

New regulations have been issued that provide for a one-off payment of £200 to be made to eligible people under the Covid-19 Heating Payment Scheme in Northern Ireland. In force from 25 January 2021, the Covid-19 Heating Payment Scheme Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2021 (SR.No.1/2021) provide that the Department for Communities shall make payments under the Scheme.

The Department for Communities is providing a one-off heating payment if you are in receipt of Pension Credit, or are in receipt of certain disability benefits at the highest rates, in recognition of additional costs arising from the Covid-19 pandemic.

You do not need to apply for a Covid-19 Heating Payment.  Payments are planned for the end of January 2021.  If you are receiving one of the benefits below in the qualifying week, you will receive the payment automatically.

Eligibility

To be eligible for a Covid-19 Heating Payment during the qualifying week from Monday 30 November to Sunday 6 December (inclusive), you must be a resident in Northern Ireland and in receipt of one or more of the following benefits:
  • Pension Credit
  • the higher rate of Attendance Allowance
  • the higher rate care and / or higher rate mobility element of Disability Living Allowance, including children
  • the enhanced rate daily living and / or enhanced rate mobility element of Personal Independence Payment
If you are eligible, the Covid-19 Heating Payment will be a one-off payment of £200 paid automatically into the same account you receive your usual benefit payments. You will only receive one payment, even if you receive more than one of the benefits above.
  • This payment will be disregarded when considering your entitlement to other benefits, including tax credits, and may be taxable.
  • The Covid-19 Heating Payment is in addition to any other payments, including the Winter Fuel Payment.
  • If you are part of a couple to whom Pension Credit is jointly paid, you will only receive one Covid-19 Heating Payment.
  • You will not receive the payment if you are resident in a care home during the qualifying week.
  • It is planned that payment of the Covid-19 Heating Payment will be made at the end of January 2021.
No account shall be taken of eligibility for a Covid-19 heating payment when considering a person’s entitlement to a social fund payment, a discretionary support award or a payment under income support, jobseeker's allowance, employment and support allowance, housing benefit (working age and state pension age), universal credit or state pension credit.

Note the Department may recover any payment made in error and there is no right of appeal.

https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/coronavirus-covid-19-and-benefits#toc-1
https://www.legislation.gov.uk/nisr/2021/1/made

DfC agreed with HMRC that the COVID-19 Heating Payment will be disregarded for Tax Credits as per the following legislation: Tax Credits, Childcare Payments, and Childcare (Extended Entitlement) (Coronavirus and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2020. This payment will be disregarded when considering your entitlement to other benefits, including tax credits, and may be taxable. Click here for the most up to date information.
 

Minister reopens Voluntary, Community and Social Economy Sector Covid Recovery Fund

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced the opening of a second phase, worth £1m of the Voluntary, Community and Social Economy Sector (VCSE) Covid Recovery Fund. She stated “Groups can apply for awards up to £5,000 for the purchase of PPE and I would urge VCSE organisations to apply.” Organisations who were previously successful in applying to this element of the fund can reapply to receive up to £5,000 (e.g. if an organisation was awarded £2,000 from the 1st phase of applications, they can apply for a further £3,000).

https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/node/49208

Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey announced a further £2.75 million for Councils under the Covid-19 Community Support Fund to allow them to support the voluntary and community sector response to the continuing hardship created by the pandemic.

https://www.communities-ni.gov.uk/node/49140
 

Minister extends the closing date of the NSESS and amends the scheme to allow more newly self-employed to be supported

Economy Minister Diane Dodds announced an amendment to the criteria for the Newly Self-Employed Support Scheme (NSESS) and an extension to the closing date. The closing date has now been extended to Friday 5 February to allow applicants the opportunity to include evidence from their 2019/20 HMRC tax return.    
The NSESS provides financial support to newly self-employed individuals (sole traders and those in partnerships) whose business has been adversely impacted by Covid and who have not been able to access support from the UK government’s Self-Employed Income Support Scheme.
  • A one-off taxable grant of £3,500 will be provided.
  • Newly self-employed individuals (sole traders and those in partnerships) are eligible for the NSESS if they commenced trading as self-employed between 6 April 2019 and 5 April 2020 and their business has been adversely impacted by Covid-19.
  • Their trading profits for 2019/20 must be below £50,000.
  • Under the previous criteria over 50% of their income in 2019/20 must have been from self-employment. This has been amended to allow those who commenced self-employment later in the financial year to qualify for support. If you can demonstrate that you moved from paid employment (PAYE) to self-employment during 2019/20 your income from the previous employment will not be taken into account.
The rest of the eligibility criteria remains unchanged. More information on NSESS and application details are available here.
 

Chancellor extends furlough and loan schemes

The furlough scheme has been extended until the end of April 2021 with the government continuing to contribute 80% towards wages. In a move to ensure firms can access the support they need through continuing economic disruption, Rishi Sunak also confirmed he would be extending the government-guaranteed Covid-19 business loan schemes until the end of March.

The government will continue to pay 80% of the salary of employees for hours not worked until the end of April. Employers will only be required to pay wages, National Insurance Contributions (NICS) and pensions for hours worked; and NICS and pensions for hours not worked. The eligibility criteria for the UK-wide scheme will remain unchanged and these changes will continue to apply to all Devolved Administrations.

Businesses will also be given until the end of March to access the Bounce Back Loan Scheme, Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, and the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme. These had been due to close at the end of January.

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/chancellor-extends-furlough-and-loan-schemes
 

Advice for Clinically Extremely Vulnerable remains in place

The Department of Health has reiterated the advice regarding “shielding” by people who are Clinically Extremely Vulnerable CEV) to Covid-19. It is also stressed that this is guidance – not regulation.

The updated advice was placed online at nidirect.

In addition, the Chief Medical Officer has written to all people who had previously been shielding to advise them of the change in advice re: attending work. The letter can be used as evidence for employers for evidence of entitlement to Statutory Sick Pay. Letters are in the process of being issued to patients via their GP or secondary care clinician as appropriate. Some people have already received their letters. Patients can use their old shielding letters as evidence in the meantime if necessary.
 

Covid Vaccination Programme

The Department of Health has published the phased plan for NI’s COVID-19 vaccination programme. The implementation of the vaccination programme will continue to closely follow the prioritisation list recommended by JCVI. The phased plan can be found here.

A range of information leaflets on the COVID-19 vaccination programme are available on the PHA website.

Health Minister Update on the Vaccination programme can be found in the NI Assembly Question section, in this edition of Think.
 

COVID-19: advice if you're struggling to pay your energy bills

https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/covid-19-advice-if-youre-struggling-pay-your-energy-bills
 

Coronavirus (Covid-19) and rates bills

Due to coronavirus, rates bills were issued in June 2020 instead of April 2020, when people usually get their rates bills. This was to help avoid placing financial pressure on ratepayers. The domestic regional rate has also been frozen for 2020-21. Most Land and Property Services (LPS) services and phone helplines are available.

Customer Information Centres will remain closed until further notice. You can email rating@lpsni.gov.uk (for queries about your rate bill),
valuation@lpsni.gov.uk (for property valuation queries)
or CustomerInformation.LandRegistration@finance-ni.gov.uk (for land registry queries).

The Ordnance Survey helpline remains closed, however you can email Mapping.Helpdesk@finance-ni.gov.uk for mapping queries. 

You can keep up to date with available services at the Department of Finance website:
https://www.finance-ni.gov.uk/land-property-services-lps
https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/coronavirus-covid-19-and-rate-bills
 

The Backlog of Social Security Appeals Needs to Be Urgently Resolved

Right to Work: Right to Welfare campaigner, and EBIAC Manager Mary McManus, comments on Appeals backlog under Covid-19:

https://nlb.ie/blog/2021-01-backlog_of_social_security_appeals_needs_to_be_urgently_resolved

NI Assembly

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.
 

AQO 1429/17-22          Ms Paula Bradley (DUP - North Belfast)        

To ask the Minister for Communities for her assessment of the number of people who have been unsuccessful in receiving the Discretionary Support Self Isolation Grant.

I introduced the Discretionary Support Self-Isolation grant on the 25 March to ensure people here were receiving the help they needed at the very outset of this pandemic. In the period from the 25 March to the 30 November 2020, 19,812 claims have been processed of which 15,987 were successful.

Reasons why applications are not successful vary according to individual circumstances set against the eligibility criteria for the scheme. Within the figures also are those cases where duplicate applications were made, or those that failed because contact with the applicant was not established.

It is important however that all those in need and who meet the eligibility criteria for the scheme receive as much help as possible. That is why Minister Ní Chuilín announced enhancements to the scheme on 16 November which introduced greater flexibility to provide payments for longer and increased the amounts payable.

It is also vitally important that people seek help as early as possible once self - isolating in order to maximise the awards available. To help promote uptake of the self-isolation grant a DfC promotional exercise commenced on 12 January which will run initially for 7 days.

The PHA has agreed to include a link to the NIDirect Coronavirus (COVID-19) and Benefits webpage under the heading - Financial Support and Practical help. This link will ensure people locate the Discretionary Support webpage more easily to check out eligibility and apply. My Department has also successfully worked with the Department of Health to include information on this grant as part of the StopCOVID app. notification process.

The management information included in this response while accurate at the time it is provided may change when subjected to final reconciliation/verification checks prior to publication as applicable.
 

AQO 1431/17-22          Mr Seán Lynch (SF - Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

To ask the Minister for Communities what actions her Department is taking to address the root causes of poverty.

In line with New Decade New Approach commitments, work has begun to develop an Anti-Poverty Strategy that will tackle inequalities and obstacles that directly affect the everyday lives of those in poverty, and will bring focus to identifying and addressing the issues, barriers and disadvantages that undermine equality of opportunity.

The Strategy will be co-designed and co-produced with people who have experienced poverty; sectoral and academic experts; voluntary and community groups; councils; trade unions; business organisations; and other stakeholders including our children and young people. My department invests approximately eighteen million pounds every year to over three hundred projects in Neighbourhood Renewal areas across sixty five geographical areas. Our Neighbourhood Renewal partners will play a key role in helping to inform the Anti-Poverty Strategy.

I am also committed to tackling food insecurity. As well as providing six million pounds in funding to deliver an immediate food response at the outset of the pandemic, my Department has provided more than five million pounds to deliver sustainable food interventions in partnership with local councils and the community & voluntary sector. Food insecurity is an issue that will be considered when developing the wider Anti-Poverty Strategy.
 

AQO 1432/17-22          Mr Daniel McCrossan (SDLP - West Tyrone)

To ask the Minister for Communities what assessment she has made of the extent of the use of food banks.

There is no doubt that we have seen an increase in people experiencing economic hardship through the pandemic, and this is likely to continue as the impacts continue to be felt.

Evidence from our partners and through calls to the Covid community advice line indicate that food insecurity and the use of food banks has increased. As part of the emergency response, my Department has provided £3.25m to local Councils to enable them to support community food providers, including foodbanks, in their areas.

Alongside this funding of around £1m has been provided to FareShare, a food distribution charity, to increase their capacity and the supply of food that they provide to their community food members including foodbanks. 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.
 

AQW 11737/17-22       Ms Emma Rogan (SF - South Down)

To ask the Minister of Health for his assessment of Improving and Safeguarding Social Wellbeing: A strategy for Social Work in NI 2012-2022, including any plans to review or renew the strategy.

This is the first Strategy for Social Work and it has successfully brought an increased focus to the profession and its contribution to supporting the social wellbeing of the population. Following a mid term review of the Strategy in 2015-16 new governance arrangements for Stage 2 delivery which promote and support a distributed leadership approach, ownership by the profession and the systems leaders and more local autonomy were developed and agreed. This also included the establishment of an Outcomes Delivery Board (ODB), chaired by the Chief Social Work Officer to set the broad strategic direction. During the period 2012 – 2020 much has been achieved for example:  Local Engagement Partnerships have been established in each Trust to agree local priorities; my Department supports the Regional Social Work Leadership Programme-Stronger Together which aims to develop social work capacity across all sectors by building the leadership capability of the profession; workforce development initiatives and supports have been supported; a Framework which articulates the role and purpose of social work in improving social well-being has been developed and distributed to every social worker in Northern Ireland and the experience and expertise of social workers in Quality Improvement (QI)  is recognised and utilised throughout the HSC including the development of a HSC QI Infrastructure as part of  Delivering Together. Social work employers have also been supported to test new ways of working particularly those that enable social workers to have more face to face contact and have improved outcomes for those who use their services.

As the lifetime of the strategy is coming to an end, an evaluation of the impact of its implementation is planned to commence shortly to inform the next phase of developing the profession. The evaluation will provide an objective assessment of the impact of the strategy, identify what has worked, lessons learned and point the way towards the future.
 

AQO 1018/17-22          Mrs Dolores Kelly (SDLP - Upper Bann)

To ask the Minister for Communities, given the increase in domestic violence, what resources her Department is allocating to meet the increased demand for Women's Aid services and refuges.

The Department of Justice have confirmed an increase in calls to the domestic violence helpline in recent times. The Housing Executive have advised they have also seen a similar increase in demand for Women’s Aid services. During the period 1 April to 30 September 2020, there was an increase in people presenting as homeless as a result of domestic violence during same period of the previous year up from 620 to 668, with 594 acceptances, up from 589.

Belfast & Lisburn WA (BLWA) – Ulsterville Ave operates as an ‘emergency crash pad’ which is utilised for 24 hours before women and their families are moved on to more suitable accommodation. During the COVID-19 lockdown period, the BLWA emergency crash pad remained open for referrals and its length of stay was increased to 48 hours.

‘Crash Pads’ are now in operation in Belfast, Ballymena and Foyle operated by each corresponding Women’s Aid Organisation.

In response to COVID-19 cost pressures faced by Supporting People service providers, additional funding of £10m was secured from the Executive. A total of £32k has been issued to date to providers funded to provide services to the women at risk of domestic violence client group and is based on estimated spend until May 2020. Actual expenditure (April to July 2020) will be paid following an agreed process.

£400k has been allocated to Foyle Women’s Aid as a contribution to the development of the Family Justice Centre – One Safe Place, to be located at Bishop Street, Derry, with the aim to provide a wraparound support service to victims of domestic violence.

The Department of Health has provided Women’s Aid with an additional £60,000 to provide an initial care package for families who have experienced, or been a victim of, domestic abuse. This package provided food parcels, home based resources and games for families, including laptops and mobile phones.

A full range of work is ongoing, in partnership with our statutory and voluntary partners, to help raise awareness of the support services available and to ensure the provision of practical measures for victims during this challenging period. Areas of support include the 24 hour Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline, funded by Government and run by Nexus: 0808 802 1414, advice and practical help such as accommodation and free travel for those needing to leave their homes.
 
 

AQW 7186/17-22         Mr Gerry Carroll (PBPA - West Belfast)

To ask the Minister for Communities whether she has considered enabling childcare costs to be paid directly to childcare providers for Universal Credit claimants.

The Department uses the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Universal Credit computer system to process applications for Universal Credit which was designed to pay childcare costs in arrears and to the claimant. The Department is exploring the potential to amend the functionality of the system however it should be noted that any changes to the Universal Credit computer system would need to be paid for by the Department and agreed with DWP.
 

Children Living in Poverty

Ms McLaughlin asked the Minister for Communities to outline her plans to reduce the number of children living in poverty. (AQO 1419/17-22)

Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): When Minister Ní Chuilín was in post recently, she announced the extension of the 2016-19 child poverty strategy until May 2022. The purpose of the strategy is to ensure that work is done collectively to tackle the issues faced by children and families impacted on by poverty. The extension will allow time for further engagement with the anti-poverty strategy expert panel and co-design group on how to address child poverty in the longer term. The panel and the group have been established just in recent months. They will consider whether the measures to deal with child poverty in the overarching anti-poverty strategy currently in development are the right approach or whether a stand-alone child poverty strategy is required.

A review of 'People and Place: A Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal' is ongoing and involves a co-design approach with the key stakeholders. It is expected that the review will be completed within the current Assembly mandate, and its findings will inform the development of the anti-poverty strategy. As work progresses on the strategy, there will be a number of opportunities, particularly for young people, to engage with the development process. I will be engaging with the Children's Commissioner and other stakeholders who give young people a voice. It is planned that the antipoverty strategy will be published this December, subject to Executive approval.

Ms McLaughlin: Thank you, Minister, for your response. As you will be aware, organisations that work to support families in poverty, many of which have at least one parent who is working, are clear that the benefit cap is a significant factor in child poverty. Will the Minister ensure that mitigations are provided for the benefit cap?

Ms Hargey: The Member will be aware that existing mitigations were included in yesterday's Budget announcement. I have a commitment to bring the paper on mitigations to the Executive in the coming weeks. I am also carrying out a review with departmental officials and, importantly, engaging with the critical stakeholders that impact on areas around poverty to look at what further mitigations and protections we can bring in. It is part of ongoing, and I will inform the Committee and the Assembly as we take all of that forward.
 

PIP Assessment Process

Mr Blair asked the Minister for Communities when she will publish her response to the recommendations of the second independent review of the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment process. (AQO 1420/17-22)

Ms Hargey: The independent reviewer, Marie Cavanagh, provided my Department with a copy of her final report on 11 December 2020. I take the opportunity to place on record my thanks to Marie for her report, which is extremely comprehensive, and for completing the review despite the unprecedented challenges that have arisen as a result of the pandemic. I acknowledge the important contribution made to the review by people and organisations and recognise that the findings are important in continuing to improve the PIP process and to ensure that it is delivered with compassion and in an empathetic manner. My officials are currently considering the recommendations in the full report. In line with the approach adopted for the first independent review, my Department will publish a formal response in spring this year, so, in the coming months, we will publish a response on how we are taking that forward.

Mr Blair:  Further to that question, will the Minister do all that she can to ensure that the future provision of PIP assessments will concentrate on helping people to live independently, rather than making them prove their disability?

Ms Hargey: That is obviously an important question. In the review, Marie Cavanagh came forward with 12 recommendations in certain areas. We have engaged with over 250 responses on the impact of PIP. We are looking at disability assessor training around that. Giving those with a disability their independence and empowering them to engage is something that I want to seriously consider. When my officials come back with their assessment of the recommendations, I will pick up on those issues in the time ahead. The report will be published by the spring.

Mr Durkan:  Ms Cavanagh recommends that PIP assessments be brought in-house, given the well-publicised negative experience of claimants at the hands of Capita, yet the Minister has confirmed to me in a written answer that the contract with Capita that was due to end in July may be extended for another two years. The problems with Capita long predate the pandemic, so can the Minister tell us whether she is content to reward Capita with more public money for failure?

Ms Hargey: When I came into the Department, that was one of the areas I was acutely aware of….. As I said, I want to create a social security system that works with people, empowers citizens and is empathetic to their needs. There are restrictions at the moment. I cannot change a complete system right away. You will understand that a lot of the processes and the IT infrastructure do not just pertain to here; they work across England, Scotland and Wales. However, I have instructed officials to look at a reworked inhouse model. I know that that has been picked up in the recommendations as well. When I review my officials' recommendations on the reassessment of the PIP process, that is one of the critical areas that I will look at in more detail. We cannot change it right away; we cannot change something like that in a matter of months. However, I am instructing officials to look at what we need to do in the time ahead. We are looking at that in-house model, as, importantly, it meets the needs of those who require it. Engagement with those individuals, and with the advice sector, in the design and in what that will look like will be critical in the time ahead. There is a commitment from me to look at all of it and to do that.

Ms Dolan: Minister, does the Department plan to ensure that all communications issued to disabled people meet their requirements?

Ms Hargey: That is one of the issues. We are considering the comments made by Marie in her assessment. It is one of the areas that we are looking at in terms of disability and the requirements there. I will bring forward an assessment of it, as well as what the next steps will be, when we publish it, along with my Department's commitments, in the spring.

Mr Butler:  Minister, you will note that the review recommendations on the special rules for terminal illness have been mentioned. They come further to the first review and to the crossparty support for scrapping the special rules. Can you provide an update on the Department's work in this respect?

Ms Hargey: The Member will be aware that when Carál was in this role on a temporary basis she signalled a commitment to reform the terminal illness rules during the debate that took place at that time. The issue has been raised at the Executive. I think that there is broad support for urgent change. Treasury has raised areas of clarification in our attempts to make changes. Officials are working with Treasury to get the clarifications sorted out as soon as possible. A paper will be brought to the Executive for approval to make those changes. I will update members of the Committee, and the Chamber, when we do that. I want to expedite this as quickly as possible.
 

Job Start: Update

Mr Muir asked the Minister for Communities for an update on the establishment of the Job Start scheme. (AQO 1422/17-22)

Ms Hargey:  The Job Start scheme was due to launch on 14 December. Unfortunately, the Department has had to pause the scheme because clarification is needed on funding approval for it going into the new financial year. I continue to keep the situation under review and will advise of developments. There have also been limitations due to the current regulations, which encourage people to stay at home. We engaged with employers and key stakeholders in devising the Job Start scheme, and I want to get it kicked off as soon as I possibly can. The Budget was announced yesterday, and we can see the pressures that it has presented. I continue to engage with the Finance Department and other Executive colleagues. I continue to look at the labour market and at what interventions we can make. I commit to getting the Job Start scheme up and running as soon as possible.

Mr Muir: I asked a question about this on 8 September after the Kickstart scheme was launched across the water on 8 July. I was told that it would launch in November, and it is now being put off yet again. Rather than Job Start, it seems more like "Non Start". Can the Minister outline what funding was bid for and say whether any money has been returned to the centre as a result of the delays in launching this much-wanted scheme?

Ms Hargey: We are trying to launch the scheme in this financial year, so, as yet, no money for the scheme has been returned to the centre. The delays are around financial commitments in terms of whether we can run the scheme in the new financial year. I completely understand the frustrations. I have been raising this in terms of the financial commitments in the Budget, because this is one of the critical areas as we start to look at recovery from the pandemic. Because of the current restrictions, there are limitations on what we can do to engage with young people entering the labour market, albeit that we hope that those restrictions will start to ease in the coming months. This is under constant review. It is an urgent matter for me to get the programme up and running as soon as possible when we have the resources committed to do so. I will update Members as we move through this. We want to get this resolved as soon as possible.

Ms Sheerin: Minister, can you advise what types of job young people will be advised to enter in the Job Start scheme?

Ms Hargey: The Job Start scheme is different from Kickstart. There is greater flexibility in the Job Start scheme in that, if a single job opportunity arises, we can engage with the employer. There are restrictions in the scheme across the water in that a smaller employer would need at least 30 applications before that can be considered. We are looking at any area across the employment sector. We want to engage with young people to ensure that they are job-ready to look at opportunities lasting up to six months, where they can be placed in a work-based environment with job and youth work coaches who can support the young person and match them to job opportunities.

Mrs Barton:  Will there be any training for the young people for the jobs that they are interested in and, perhaps, for the people who will employ them?

Ms Hargey: There will be training and support. We are working with psychology experts in the Department on the barriers and limitations for the  young people. They will be assigned support from the Department to work with them to ensure that they are job-ready and to prepare them for the transition into a six-month placement. We will work with them through designated work coaches who deal specifically with young people on the issues and barriers pertaining to young people. There will be opportunities for young people to be employed for a minimum of 25 hours per week for six months. Training will be assigned to meet the young person's individual needs as they work through the initial application stage.
 

Welfare Mitigations: Two-child Limit

Ms Bradshaw asked the Minister for Communities whether there will be any measures in the revised welfare mitigations to prevent the continued application of the two child limit. (AQO 1423/17-22)

Ms Hargey: The New Decade, New Approach deal committed to a review of future welfare mitigation measures. I am finalising proposals for the review, and I plan to make a formal announcement on how it will be taken forward in due course. Details of the review will be shared with the Committee for Communities at the earliest opportunity, and members will be afforded the chance to present their views on the proposal. I am not yet in a position to provide the specific details on the issues that will be covered in the review; however, I can confirm that mitigation of the two-child policy will be considered. That is part of the considerations. The overarching purpose will be to identify the need to develop a prioritised mitigation package that will be costed and assessed for affordability. I am committed to the principles of co-design and the desire to embed human rights in all that the Department does, and that will be an integral part in the development of any new mitigation measures. It is therefore planned to include representatives of the independent advice sector and other groups that have an interest in social security at all stages. We know that, on 6 April 2017, the British Government introduced a limit on support for a maximum of two children. Families are not able to claim a child element for a third or subsequent child born on or after 6 April 2017. There are a number of exceptions to the two child limit. I recognise that children living in poverty are subject to poorer outcomes in education, health and other opportunities, and I want to look at how we can close those gaps to allow children to prosper and participate fully in society. There are few things more important than the wellbeing of children and young people, and, as part of the review of welfare mitigations on the two-child policy that are being considered, I want to bring forward the new proposals as soon as possible.

 http://data.niassembly.gov.uk/HansardXml/plenary-19-01-2021.pdf
 

Update on Covid vaccine rollout

Mr Swann, Minister of Health:

Phase 1 of the programme officially began on Tuesday 8 December, with all four UK countries launching their vaccination programme. In Northern Ireland, the programme began at the Belfast Trust vaccination site, where vaccinators from across Northern Ireland were invited to receive the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. All the trusts intended to start vaccinating health and social care workers in the week commencing 14 December. However, in light of the planned delivery schedules of the vaccine in December and January, the staff programme will now have to be phased, starting with those who are at greatest risk or those who work directly with patients at the greatest risk. Ultimately, all health and social care workers will have the opportunity to be vaccinated, and that is expected to be within the first quarter of 2021. There will be seven trust vaccination sites operating in Northern Ireland. Those will be located at the Royal Victoria Hospital; the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald; South Lake Leisure Centre in Craigavon; Seven Towers Leisure Centre in Ballymena; Foyle Arena in Londonderry/Derry; Omagh Leisure Complex; and Lakeland Forum in Enniskillen.

My officials have worked closely with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) to develop a deployment model that will enable deployment in care homes and that takes into account the unique characteristics of the vaccine, including transport requirements. Teams from health trusts will vaccinate care home residents, working closely with local GPs under comprehensive health trust governance arrangements that are designed to ensure that the integrity and efficacy of the vaccine is maintained throughout. Trust mobile vaccination teams intend to visit all the homes over the next few weeks subject to dealing with any that have a current COVID-19 outbreak.

We are considering how the arrangements might be extended to include the over-80s living in the community. Due to the logistics of the strict handling conditions attached to the use of the Pfizer vaccine, it is very difficult to deploy the vaccine in a GP setting. However, every effort is being made to try to arrange either a trust-based or GP-based programme for the over-80s. From early January 2021, subject to the availability of a suitable vaccine, it is intended to roll out the programme through primary care-led vaccination clinics that will be responsible for the vast majority of eligible individuals of 50 years and over. GPs will work their way down through the eligible cohorts, starting with the oldest.

While the start of the vaccination programme is a highly positive development, I stress that it will be months before the vaccination programme is complete.

http://aims.niassembly.gov.uk/officialreport/report.aspx?&eveDate=2020-12-15&docID=319622#AQO%201360/17-22

Parliamentary Questions

Stephen Morgan - Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, if she will temporarily increase the qualification period for the Severe Disability Premium Gateway to assist qualifying persons who have been made redundant as a result of the covid-19 outbreak.

Answer: [Justin Tomlinson Conservative] 134540

People who are made redundant as a result of Covid-19, or in any other circumstances, are able to make a claim to Universal Credit.

The Severe Disability Premium (SDP) Gateway is currently in place to prevent existing claimants who have been, within the past month, entitled to an award of an existing benefit (Employment and Support Allowance (income related), Jobseekers Allowance (income based), Income Support or Housing Benefit) that includes a SDP, from moving to Universal Credit if they have a relevant change in their circumstances. In cases where the benefit award ended during that month, they must have continued to satisfy the eligibility conditions for a SDP within the relevant benefit.

When the SDP Gateway is removed from 27 January 2021, existing benefit claimants who are entitled to the SDP will need to claim Universal Credit if they have a relevant change of circumstances and they will be considered for a transitional SDP element to be included in their Universal Credit award.
 

Stephen Morgan - Labour

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what assessment she has made of the potential merits of removing the disparity in the level of private pension deductions from universal credit with those made from earned income.

Answer: [Will Quince Conservative] 134539

No assessment has been made. There are no plans to align the treatment of pension income with that for earned income when calculating Universal Credit entitlement.
 

Patrick Grady - Scottish National Party

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, what assessment she has made of the potential merits of suspending in-work conditionality requirements for universal credit recipients as a result of the economic effect of the covid-19 outbreak on the job market.

Answer: [Mims Davies Conservative] 136550

Claimants who are in work with earnings above the Administrative Earnings Threshold are not currently expected to undertake any mandatory work-related activity in Universal Credit.
 

Kirsten Oswald - Scottish National Party

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for what reason the contribution-based state pension is being offset against entitlement to carer's allowance.

Answer: [Guy Opperman Conservative] 132970

There are no plans to reassess this policy. Successive Governments have supported the policy that where someone is entitled to two benefits for the same contingency then only one will be paid. Entitlement to State Pension and Carer’s Allowance differ but are both paid as an income replacement.

Carer’s Allowance replaces income where the carer has given up the opportunity of full-time employment in order to care for a severely disabled person, while State Pension replaces income in retirement. To avoid duplicate provision for the same need, social security “overlapping benefit” rules - operate to prevent them being paid together.
If a carer’s State Pension is less than Carer's Allowance, State Pension is paid and topped up with Carer's Allowance to the basic weekly rate of Carer's Allowance which from April 2020, increased to £67.25.

Entitlement to Carer’s Allowance also gives access to the additional amount for carers in Pension Credit of £37.50 a week. If a pensioner’s income is above the limit for Pension Credit, they may still be able to receive Housing Benefit.
 
 

Neil Gray - Scottish National Party

To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, whether her Department’s staff can retrospectively correct information posted on a claimant’s universal credit journal without including an acknowledgement of the Department’s error.

Answer: [Will Quince Conservative] 134451

Work Coaches and Case Managers are prevented from amending or deleting Universal Credit journal entries made by a claimant.
Staff members can retrospectively amend information they have posted to the Universal Credit journal, however claimants should receive an explanation to justify the amendment.

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