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Assembly Questions February 2020

In February, Minister for Communities Deirdre Hargey answered various questions relating to the work of her Department, including plans in relation to welfare reform mitigation, temporary accommodation and housing supply. You can find the answers to many of these questions below.


Housing supply

Question from Mr Andy Allen, Ulster Unionist Party, East Belfast

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail (i) the number of (a) social; and (b) affordable housing new builds in each of the last five years, broken down by constituency; and (ii) whether her Department achieved its new build target in each of the corresponding years


The social housing new build programme achieved its target in four of the last five years. Whilst the target of 1,850 was not achieved in 2018/19 the attainment of 1,789 new units was still an increase on the previous year’s target. (See NI Assembly website for tables setting out social and affordable housing new builds.)

Question from Mr David Hilditch, Democratic Unionist Party, East Antrim

To ask the Minister for Communities what action is being taken to increase the number of new builds in the social housing sector.


During this current financial year 2019/20, the DfC is supporting the social housing sector to deliver 1,850 new build starts at a cost of £146m. The Department is also currently considering the future Social Housing Development Programme for the next three years which includes increased targets going forward. In line with the Executive’s New Decade, New Approach, the priority will be to enhance investment and agree new social home starts. The budget for the 2020/21 to 2022/23 Social Housing Development Programme and beyond has yet to be agreed. The number of homes to be provided therefore is governed by the amount of funding available from central government through DfC.

Question from Mr Andrew Muir, Alliance Party NI, North Down

To ask the Minister for Communities for an update on the implementation of the proposals of the Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations.


A consultation on ‘A Fundamental Review of Social Housing Allocations’ ran from September to December 2017.  This was the culmination of a Department-led review to examine the Housing Selection Scheme.   During previous phases of the Review, stakeholders commented that they valued aspects of the current Scheme, including the principle of universal access and that allocations should prioritise applicants in greatest need.   However some stakeholders also raised concerns, saying, for example, that applicants with intimidation points are given too much priority over other applicants who have received threats of violence or experienced violence, such as victims of domestic abuse.   Taken together, the proposals contained in the consultation document are intended to produce five key outcomes:   A greater range of solutions to meet housing need;   An improved system for the most vulnerable applicants;   A more accurate waiting list that reflects current housing circumstances;   Those in greatest housing need receive priority, with recognition of their time in need; and   Better use of public resources by ensuring the waiting list moves smoothly.   While improvements to the allocations system cannot physically deliver more social homes, they can ensure we make the best use of our existing resources.   Analysis of stakeholder feedback has been completed by my Departmental officials.   I will be considering the Review, options and next steps in the coming weeks.


Welfare Reform Mitigation 

Question from Mr Trevor Lunn, Alliance Party Lagan Valley

To ask the Minister for Communities to outline the proposed timescale for the relevant legislation and policy changes to enable the continuation of welfare mitigation measures beyond 31 March 2020, as outlined in the report of the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group.


I will be seeking Executive agreement to bring forward a Bill to reform the Welfare Reform Order beyond 31 March 2020. Officials are currently working as a priority to ensure all necessary arrangements are in place by 31 March 2020 with regards to passing the necessary subordinate legislation to extend the welfare mitigation package. An indicative timeframe for the passing of the required legislation is still being finalised

Question from Miss Rachel Woods, Green Party NI, North Down

To ask the Minister for Communities, pursuant to AQW 514/17-22, for a breakdown of the £40.4m forecasted costs for continuing to deliver the existing welfare mitigation schemes in 2020/21 and 2021/22.


The Department has submitted bids to Department of Finance to secure the funding required to continue existing Mitigation payments beyond 31st March 2020.  The Department’s initial bid submitted to the Department of Finance for 2020/21 and 2021/22 totalled £40.4m per year. This bid was revised on 24th January 2020 to £41.7m in 2020/21 and £42m in 2021/22. This revised forecast reflects the latest projections in respect of the impact of updated caseloads for Social Sector Size Criteria and Benefit Cap mitigations and associated administration costs. A breakdown of the Department’s revised bid to continue existing Mitigation payments beyond 31st March 2020 is provided in the following table (accessible on the NI Assembly website).

Question from Mr Andy Allen, Ulster Unionist Party, East Belfast

To ask the Minister for Communities (i) when she intends to introduce the regulations to extend existing welfare reform mitigations; and (ii) what mitigations will be extended by regulation.


(i) Officials are currently drafting the necessary legislation to extend the existing welfare mitigation schemes beyond 31 March 2020. The draft Regulations will be laid before the Assembly for consideration in the coming weeks.   (ii) As agreed in the New Decade, New Approach deal I am committed to extending all of the existing welfare mitigation measures.

Question from Mr Paul Frew, Democratic Unionist Party, North Antrim

To ask the Minister for Communities to outline the reasons for the reduced requirements for (i) Housing Benefit, totalling £6.7M ; (ii) Personal Independence Payments, totalling £1.1M; and (iii) Welfare Mitigation Measures, totalling £12.3M in the Janaury Monitoring Round.


In each Monitoring Round my Department seeks to maintain a position in order to live within strict tolerances whilst ensuring that appropriate funding remains in place to meet business needs. The reduced requirements noted are demand led Ring Fenced Budgets which can only be used for the purposes allocated. Housing Benefit Rates is a benefit administered by the Housing Executive for tenants and Land and Property Services (LPS) for home owners. Currently working age customers who are in receipt of Universal Credit are migrating to the new Rates Rebate scheme (administered and accounted for by LPS) and it is difficult to forecast the numbers migrating. Personal Independence Payments (PIP) contract costs were lower than forecast following a DWP announcement that over 65’s with long term health conditions will no longer need to be reassessed. As DfC maintains parity with DWP on social security issues, the same policy was adopted. The reduced requirement for mitigations has arisen due to a significant increase in successful appeals for PIP. Once an appeal is successful the associated costs are considered to be standard PIP costs rather than mitigation measures.


Welfare Reform

Question from Miss Rachel Woods, Green Party NI, North Down

To ask the Minister for Communities, pursuant to AQW 955/17-22, (i) when she will publish the findings of the review of Discretionary Support; (ii) whether there will be a public consultation on the review; and (iii) when any such consultation will be launched.


(i)The Discretionary Support policy review identified several key issues which require further consideration. Once I have fully assessed these issues the outcomes of the review will be shared with the Assembly. A date for releasing this information has not yet been confirmed. (ii) I anticipate that a public consultation on the future design of the Discretionary Support policy will be conducted. This will allow for input from key stakeholders and members of the public. (iii) If a consultation is taken forward this is likely to be launched in the Spring. Further details of any consultation, including the start date, will be shared with the Assembly alongside the findings from the review.

Question from Mr Andy Allen, Ulster Unionist Party, East Belfast

To ask the Minister for Communities whether she intends to initiate a review of the Universal Credit complaints process.


Can I thank the Member for his question and his ongoing interest in Universal Credit.   The purpose of any complaints process is to give people the chance to complain about any aspect of a service they feel has let them down. I want to ensure that people who bring forward a complaint can trust the process and the outcome.   Before a case is treated as a formal complaint we encourage the person to contact the office managing their case and raise their concern directly there. This is often the quickest way to resolve any issues and, if necessary, put things right. If the person is unhappy after this, their complaint will be passed to the Universal Credit Customer Service team. This is Stage One of the complaints process and a reply will be provided within ten working days. If the person remains unhappy they can escalate their complaint to the next stage (Stage Two) where a senior official will further investigate their case and reply, again within ten working days. The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman and the Independent Case Examiner provide further avenues of complaint if someone remains dissatisfied.   Since the introduction of Universal Credit in September 2017 we have received seventy-five (75) complaints. This is 0.12% of the Universal Credit caseload.    I am very conscious of the importance of having an effective complaints handling process, and am committed to keeping this under continuous review. I have already raised my own complaint directly with the British Prime Minister, and would urge all Members to do likewise, about the impact Welfare Reform and Universal Credit are having on our people, often the most vulnerable in our society.


Temporary accommodation

Question from Ms Catherine Kelly, Sinn Fein, West Tyrone

To ask the Minister for Communities whether she will review the provision of temporary accommodation in rural towns such as Omagh.


The Housing Executive has commenced a comprehensive review of all temporary accommodation. The results of this strategic review will inform the future requirements for the provision of temporary accommodation. It is anticipated that this review will be completed during the 2020/21 financial year.

Question from Ms Claire Bailey, Green Party NI, South Belfast

To ask the Minister for Communities what is the average length of stay for people accessing emergency homeless accommodation in (i) Annesgate hostel; and (ii) Centenary House.


The Housing Executive does not record the average length of stay for individual hostels. The Homelessness Strategy Year 2 Annual Progress Report provides details of the average length of stay for all placements provided by the Housing Executive across the five categories of temporary accommodation. Both Annesgate Hostel and Centenary House are within the Voluntary Sector Hostels category, with further details on the average length of stay for 2018/19 provided in the table below (accessible on the NI Assembly website)


Poverty issues

Question from Mr Andy Allen, UUP East Belfast

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail (i) how many homes are in severe fuel poverty; and (ii) when they will no longer be in this position.


(i) The Northern Ireland House Condition Survey (2016) estimated that approximately 160,000 or 22% of homes were in fuel poverty. Of those homes in fuel poverty approximately 44,000 or 6% were estimated to be in ‘severe’ fuel poverty. Severe fuel poverty is defined as needing to spend more than 15% of income, including benefits, to maintain a satisfactory level of heating (21ºC in the living room and 18ºC in other occupied rooms).  My Department and our delivery partners in the Housing Executive and local Councils remain committed to delivering the Affordable Warmth Scheme to target and assist those homes most at risk of fuel poverty. Since its introduction in 2015 the Scheme has invested more than £73 million to improve the energy efficiency of almost 17,500 homes.  (ii) Three factors influence fuel poverty (fuel prices, household energy use and income). Given that two of these are outside my Department’s control it is not possible to predict when households currently in fuel poverty will no longer be in that position. However, the Department and its delivery partners remain committed to delivering the Affordable Warmth Scheme to reduce fuel poverty.

Question from Mr Justin McNulty, SDLP, Newry and Armagh

To ask the Minister for Communities what work her Department has undertaken on the procurement of a new payment exception service for the most vulnerable Post Office card account customers that are unable to access or use a mainstream account.


My officials are working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to establish a new payment exception service for those customers who cannot access or manage mainstream accounts, even with support.   This includes identifying the commercial options that are available for the procurement of a suitable replacement payment exception service, and I will be given an opportunity to consider these in coming months.   I am committed to ensuring that all vulnerable customers will continue to have access to their benefit payments in a way that meets their needs, and my officials are working to put in place a suitable, accessible payment exception service that will replace the Post Office card account once that contract ends.   My Department recognises that some customers may be reluctant or have difficulty with changing their current method of payment, and support services are available to assist them with choosing a product that suits their circumstances.


Supporting people

Question from Miss Rachel Woods, Green Party NI, North Down

To ask the Minister for Communities when she will publish the findings of the strategic needs assessment arising from the Department’s Review of the Supporting People Programme in November 2015.


The Housing Executive intends to publish its strategic, evidence-based assessment of need for the Supporting People Programme by September 2020

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This article was written on 2 March 2020. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.