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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

The future of rate rebate in Northern Ireland

Housing Rights Service has just submitted a joint response with Law Centre NI on the long term options for rate rebate for working age claimants in Northern Ireland. The Department for Finance and Personnel (the Department) is looking to establish a new rate rebate system which will be more compatible with Universal Credit (UC) once it is introduced.

At HRS, we have found that issues about rates, and help with rates, are becoming more of a priority for our clients; especially in debt cases. Non-payment of rates can lead to serious consequences such as bankruptcy, threat of homelessness and imprisonment. We also encounter many cases where the liability for rates between the landlord and tenant is unclear.

In general, we support the Department proposal to introduce a new rate rebate scheme in line with UC.  However, we have raised a number of concerns with regards to backdating, appealing decisions and provision for hardship cases.

Frequency of payments

One of the key features of UC is its flexibility in using a ‘real time’ assessment of a claimant’s income and circumstances. However, under the proposals for rates reform, it is suggested that rate rebate will be assessed on an annual basis.

We feel that the Department should also consider using ‘real time’ assessment for rate rebate. We believe that it is unfair that a claimant who experiences a drop in income after their rate rebate calculation has been carried out will be unable to have their rebate reassessed and, will, therefore, continue to be liable for the same amount each month for the rest of the year, despite having less money. Under the proposals, a drop in income will not count as a change of circumstances that will trigger a review of a person’s rate rebate.

Hardship scheme

Whilst we welcome the Department's assurances that those who are least able to pay rates will be targeted by the new rebate scheme, there will always be a certain number of people who fall just outside of the qualifying criteria for assistance. We feel that sufficient safeguards need to be put in place to protect such people.

Rates are a priority debt. Therefore, it is crucial that further help should be made available to those who need it.  In considering a hardship fund, we would urge the Department not to make hardship payments time-bound.  Anyone entitled to a hardship payment should be able to continue to receive it until either their annual rate rebate review is carried out or their financial situation improves; whichever is earliest.


We are concerned that the Department proposes to make no provision for backdating. In the interests of fairness and equity the Department should not operate a blanket policy in this regard.

There will always be some claimants in exceptional circumstances who are unable to make a claim during the set time limits.  Usually these will be claimants who, through no fault of their own, have been unable to make a claim on time. Common examples would be a claimant who has been in hospital, or someone undergoing personal or family issues who may not have applying for rates rebate at the top of their agenda.

Change of circumstances

The Department proposes that claimants will be required to notify any change that affects their rate liability i.e. a change of address, death of a claimant or changes to the number of people sharing liability. We see the potential for some confusion here given that claimants receiving UC are required to report a number of changes in their circumstances.

Crediting of accounts

We welcome the proposal to credit the rates accounts of claimants and landlords. We believe that this could help to reduce any misunderstandings between landlords and tenants as to who is liable to pay rates. HRS has had many cases where a tenant is contractually liable under their tenancy agreement to pay rates to their landlord but the landlord fails to pass the payment on to LPS. Inevitably, LPS goes on to pursue the tenant, because they are legally liable for the rates under the Rates (NI) Order 1977 (as amended), even though the tenant had passed the money in good faith to their landlord. In such circumstances, the tenant can end up having to pay the same money a second time to avoid prosecution. Crediting the account of the person who is legally liable to pay the rates would be an improvement on the current situation.


If the preferred new system (Model A) is adopted, this could mean that there will not be an appeal system. Given the absence of a right of appeal, it is essential that the internal reconsideration process is robust.

Impact on advice sector

We are mindful that demand on the advice sector is likely to increase due to implementation of welfare reform and possible reductions in legal aid for housing, welfare and debt matters. Realistically, this is likely to mean that many claimants may have to navigate UC and rates rebate without the assistance of an independent adviser; hence the need for a clear and simplified system.

Our full response is available from the policy section of our website. 

Tagged In

Benefits, Welfare Reform, Policy, Affordability

This article was written on 17 February 2015. 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.