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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Assembly Roundup: June 2016

Bedroom Tax

To ask the Minister for Communities for an update on the implementation of the bedroom tax. Mr Paul Girvan, DUP AQO 45/16-21

I would like to thank the member for his question and in my answer I would also like to address the question from Mr Girvan (AQO (15) 45/16-21), which also relates to Social Sector Size Criteria.

In the Fresh Start Agreement, the Executive committed to the Social Sector Size Criteria or “Bedroom Tax” not being applied in Northern Ireland. Officials are currently working through options to mitigate the Social Sector Size Criteria to ensure that no household will be financially impacted by the changes in how housing benefit payment is calculated.

The legislation to introduce the mitigation scheme will be brought before the NI Assembly later this year. This will enable the Social Sector Size Criteria to be totally mitigated in Northern Ireland from January 2017.

I am committed to ensuring all households have accurate and timely information about the changes and to assure them that they will see no change in the amount of rent they have to pay. To date neither my department or the Northern Ireland Housing Executive have issued letters informing people that as a result of implementing the Social Sector Size Criteria they need to seek alternative accommodation, or that they will be subject to the Bedroom Tax.

Benefit cap

To ask the Minister for Communities how many claimants are (i) affected by the current benefit cap; (ii) will be affected by the benefit cap introduced under the Welfare Reform and Work Act; (iii) have children; and (iv) will receive transitional support for any loss in income up to 2020. Mr Mark Durkan, SDLP AQW 421/16-21

The Benefit Cap, with a household limit of £26,000, was introduced in Northern Ireland on 31 May 2016.

There are 529 households in Northern Ireland that may be impacted by the current Benefit Cap.

The Welfare Reform and Work Act will reduce the Benefit Cap threshold to £20,000 later this year. It is currently estimated that just under 2,500 households in Northern Ireland may be impacted by this cap.

Each of the 529 households contain children. Almost all of the estimated 2,500 households have children, the number of households with no children is in single figures.

The Northern Ireland Executive has put arrangements in place to provide financial support for those people impacted by the Benefit Cap. An additional supplementary payment may be available up to 31 March 2020 for households with children.

Advice sector

To ask the Minister for Communities when Welfare Reform will be introduced; and what advice is available for new and existing claimants. Mr Andy Allen, UUP AQW 156/16-21

Welfare Reform will gradually be introduced in Northern Ireland over the next 3 years with the first set of welfare changes having commenced in May 2016.

Changes to how a claimant disputes a social security benefit decision were introduced on 23 May 2016 and the Benefit Cap at a £26,000 level came into effect on 31 May 2016.

Personal Independence Payment will be introduced on 20 June 2016 and will replace Disability Living Allowance for people aged 16 to 64 years. It will be introduced for new claims on 20 June 2016. If someone on Disability

Living Allowance reports a change to their mobility or care needs on or after the 20 June 2016, they will also be assessed for Personal Independence Payment rather than Disability Living Allowance.

As part of the Fresh Start Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to fund the recommendations of the Evason Report to mitigate the impact of Welfare Reform. These recommendations included a series of supplementary welfare payments to mitigate the most harmful impacts of the welfare changes. My Department has put in place the legislation and operational systems to make payments for claimants impacted by the

Benefit Cap and is currently putting in place similar arrangements to support claimants impacted by the introduction of Personal Independent Payment.

The Working Group Report also recommended that additional independent advice services should be put in place to help and support customers through the welfare changes. The Executive made a commitment to provide £8m funding over 4 years to provide the additional services and my Department are currently finalising arrangements with the regional advice organisations to have those additional services in place by August 2015

The Advice organisations are planning to have a dedicated contact centre to provide help and advice over the phone but with the facility to refer claimants forface to face assistance if necessary. The services will also be underpinned by access to specialist advice organisations.

LHA and social rented

To ask the Minister for Communities for an update on plans to apply Local Housing Allowances to the social rented sector. Mr Andy Allen, UUP AQW 484/16-21

I am aware of the Chancellor’s announcement in the Spending Review and Autumn Statement 2015, which states that the UK Government intends to introduce Local Housing Allowance rules to the social rented sector. Social sector rents have been increasing at faster rate than the equivalent rents in the private sector across Great Britain.

I have asked my Officials to examine social sector and private sector rent levels here, as well as any impacts the introduction of an equivalent measure may have. No decision will be taken until this scoping exercise is complete.

Homelessness

To ask the Minister for Communities what measures he is taking to address homelessness. Mr Andy Allen, UUP AQW 482/16-21

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive is the lead agency for responding to homelessness in Northern Ireland and has certain statutory duties under the Housing (NI) Order, 1988 to individuals or households who present to them as homeless or are threatened with homelessness. These duties extend from advice and assistance to a full accommodation duty depending on an individual’s circumstances and vulnerability.

The 2016/17 Homelessness budget funded by my Department and administered by the Housing Executive is over £35.5 million. The funding for the provision of homelessness services is £8.25million and £27.3million provides homeless related support services through the Supporting People programme.

The Housing Executive’s strategic approach to dealing with Homelessness is the current Homelessness Strategy, 2012 – 17 which has an overall vision of eliminating long term homelessness and rough sleeping by 2020 and focuses on prevention and early intervention. The Housing Executive is developing a Housing Options model as a key prevention approach for delivering its Homelessness services. The Housing Options Model will examine an individual’s circumstances and choices in the widest sense when they seek housing advice to ensure that the housing solution is tailored to the specific needs of the individual with the necessary support provided where appropriate.

The Housing Executive’s strategy for tackling homelessness has a stated aim to end the need to sleep rough. Rough sleeping linked to homelessness is a complex issue that goes much further than my Department’s responsibilities. It includes general health and social care provision for those sleeping rough, support for alcohol and drug dependency and managing mental health issues. Tackling homelessness linked to rough sleeping requires a number of organisations in the statutory and voluntary sector to work together.

Rough Sleeping in Northern Ireland largely occurs in Belfast and to a lesser extent in Londonderry.  In recent years in Belfast there has been a growing visibility of street activity including street drinking, begging and rough sleeping leading to a perception that the need to sleep on the street is on the rise.  In 2015 a Belfast Street Needs Audit was commissioned by the Housing Executive to look at rough sleeping.  The Housing Executive published the final report earlier this year.

Following the report’s findings, two interagency groups have been established, one led by the Housing Executive to address the needs of identified chronic rough sleepers and the other, led by Belfast Community Safety Partnership will address the issues of street begging and street drinking. This work is now underway.

In March 2016, following a number of street deaths in Belfast City Centre, the former Social Development Minister, established an inter-Ministerial sub group with the former Ministers of Health and Justice to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping. A subsequent action plan was developed and endorsed by previous NI Executive colleagues.

A number of key actions that are now complete include increasing hours of funded street outreach; extending the crash bed facilities in Belfast and re-examining the access arrangements for homeless hostels. Medium term actions around the availability of treatment and support services for homeless people with complex needs and a potential further roll-out of Housing First wraparound support services for vulnerable people are due to be complete by end March 2017.

Debt Advice

To ask the Minister for Communities how he intends to progress debt advice. Mr Andy Allen, UUP AQW 232/16-21

Debt advice in Northern Ireland is funded and commissioned by the Money Advice Service (MAS). MAS has awarded a contract to Citizens Advice NI to deliver debt advice in Northern Ireland from April 2016.

My Department has funded the Housing Rights Service £340k for the 2016/2017 year to deliver the Mortgage Debt Advice Service. This service provides free independent mortgage debt advice to people in Northern Ireland.

Debt advice policy became the responsibility of my Department on 9 May 2016. Officials are now considering how debt policy should be progressed and are determining the need for a debt advice strategy for Northern Ireland.

Leaseholders

To ask the Minister for Communities why Northern Ireland Housing Executive tenants who have subsequently purchased apartments and continue to pay service charges to the Housing Executive are not entitled to the same level of assistance from the Housing Executive, including access to grant aid schemes, as other tenants who reside in non-apartment properties. Mrs Jo-Anne Dobson, UUP AQW 201/16-21

The Housing Executive has advised that when it sells an apartment to a former tenant, the exterior of the building remains its responsibility to maintain. As such, leaseholders would not require grant aid or assistance for work to the exterior of the building.

Each leaseholder is obliged to pay a service charge which covers their proportion of the total annual cost for the upkeep of the block in which the flats are situated.  These costs are calculated in five separate elements:-

  • Itemised repairs (including running costs);
  • Non itemised repairs
  • Management costs
  • Improvements (Planned Maintenance)
  • Insurance

The leaseholders may continue to access grants under the Home Improvement Grants and/or the Affordable Warmth Scheme with applications being considered subject to the eligibility criteria of the particular scheme. However, the work considered for grant aid will be restricted to the interior of the dwelling.

Future of the NIHE

To ask the Minister for Communities for an update on his plans to abolish the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and replace it with a regional housing body. Mr Andy Allen, UUP AQW 157/16-21

Since January 2013, the Social Housing Reform Programme has been developing new operating policies and proposals for new structural models for social housing delivery. A Fresh Start included a renewed commitment to social housing structural reform but with a new emphasis on reducing the Departmental Expenditure Limit subsidy pressures. This has required the programme to look again at its work on new structural models and consider all options afresh.This work continues but has not advanced far enough for me to consider any preferred options.

Housing Selection Scheme

To ask the Minister for Communities for an update on the reform of the Housing Selection Scheme. Mr Andy Allen, UUP AQW 155/16-21

Under a commitment made in the Housing Strategy “Facing the Future”, a fundamental review of the allocation of social housing in Northern Ireland is being led by the Department. As part of this commitment, independent research was commissioned from the Universities of Ulster and Cambridge, and was published for public comment in December 2013. Departmental proposals are now being prepared, supported by evidence and informed by the independent research. Any proposals for change will be subject to a full public consultation.

Developers Contribution's

To ask the Minister for Communities whether he plans to introduce a developers' contribution requiring new private housing developments to contain a social and affordable housing component. Mr Steven Agnew, Green Party AQW 1336/16-21

Independent research, published by the then Department for Social Development in February 2016, highlights that most housing markets in Northern Ireland could not sustain a scheme of developer contributions at present. The report also highlights that there are key data and evidence gaps on issues pertinent to housing supply and the NI housing market more generally. My officials are working with officials in the Department for Infrastructure on these issues.

Housing Benefit

To ask the Minister for Communities to detail the number of Housing Benefit claimants that have had their benefit reduced since the introduction of the Living Wage. Mr Gerry Mullan, SDLP, AQW 1002/16-21

The information is not available in the format requested because the Housing Executive is unable to identify Housing Benefit cases affected by the introduction of the Living Wage. This is because the information held regarding claimants’ earnings is shown as a weekly or monthly amount and may increase/decrease due to the number of hours worked. It is therefore not possible to produce data on those cases where an increase in income is as a result of the introduction of the Living Wage.

Social Housing

To ask the Minister for Communities how much of the £36.5 million in Housing Grants to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive in the 2016-17 budget will be used to build new social housing; and how many new houses will these funds help build. Ms Claire Hanna, SDLP, AQW 982/16-21

The £36.5 million you have referred to in your question relates to the total grant paid to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to support landlord functions.

Funding for the provision of social housing in Northern Ireland falls within the Housing Executives Regional Services. I can therefore advise you that I have made available a total capital allocation of £106 million to support the provision of 1600 new social housing starts for 2016/17 Social Housing Development Programme.
 

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NI Assembly

Author

Sharon Geary