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028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

Welfare reform update

The Welfare Reform Bill has been the subject of much discussion at the Assembly of late. During the Bill's consideration and further consideration stages a number of amendments were tabled. The majority of these amendments did not pass as they did not have cross community support.   The amended bill includes a duty on the Department for Social Devlopment to "ensure availability of advice and assistance" although an amendment to ensure that this advice was independent was negatived.  The amended bill also includes a commitment for DSD to report on the operation of the Act within the first three years of its achieving Royal Assent. 

Minister proposes changes to sanction regime

Officials from the Department for Social Development briefed the Committee for Social Development on 9 February, ahead of the bill’s Consideration Stage.  The majority of the amendments, proposed by Minister Storey, focused on the sanction regime, which has faced much criticism in GB.  The minister proposed reducing the maximum sanction period from 3 years, as is the case in England, Scotland and Wales, to 18 months.  This sanction period will only apply to the most serious failures by claimants.

A further amendment provides for an annual report on sanctions to be produced and laid before the Assembly, allowing MLAs to review the usage of this measure and its efficiency in reducing benefit fraud.  

Minister aims to target discretionary measures at those most in need

Clause 130A of the bill has been designed to ensure that the discretionary support that will replace the social fund will be targeted to those low income households who are most in need.  The current social fund is only open to those people in receipt of certain benefits, meaning working families on low incomes have no right to assistance through the fund.  DSD officials confirmed that they have come up with “a formula for determining income for low-income families who are working”.  This formula, and the other proposals aligned with the discretionary fund, will presumably be included in presentations to the Executive and to the Social Development Committee before the public consultation into the fund opens.

In their evidence to the committee, DSD officials also confirmed the departmental intention to appoint a commissioner who will be in a position to review decisions made on applications to the discretionary support fund; this will include applications for discretionary housing payments.

Bedroom tax and new Discretionary Housing Payments fund

In the two years since the Welfare Reform bill was first introduced to the Assembly, there has been much discussion about how the “bedroom tax” or spare room subsidy will impact on social tenants in Northern Ireland.  It now appears as though the bedroom tax will be implemented, but a discretionary fund will be set up to ensure that no existing or new tenants are disadvantaged by this cut.  This fund, of £17million per annum, will top up affected tenants’ housing benefit payments until they are offered alternative or their personal circumstances change significantly.  It is likely that this fund will be available for five years, during which time housing associations will be encouraged to build an increased number of one-bedroom units to accommodate those social tenants who are affected by the bedroom tax.  The Executive will review the fund after the initial five year period.  MLAs have expressed concern as to how tenants will be affected when the initial fund ends.  

The Department's committment to investigating the type of stock required to allow tenants to move into alternative accommodation was reiterated in a DSD spokesperson's statement stating that the "...Department is currently working with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Housing Associations to better manage not only the existing stock, but also to give a greater focus on providing new stock which better meets social housing demand in Northern Ireland"

During the Bill's further consideration stage, Social Development Minister Mervyn Storey expanded on the mitigation measures that will be put in place to protect those affected by the bedroom tax, saying

Let me outline the sequencing of how it is envisaged that the mitigation scheme will be implemented. Maybe that will give Members some reassurance and a bit more information. Once the social size criteria restriction is introduced and the claimant residing in either a Housing Executive or housing association property is identified as underoccupying that property, the amount of housing benefit that has been made in payment will be reduced. The mitigation measures will, however, ensure that claimants do not see any difference in the amount of financial assistance that they receive to meet their housing costs. It will be only after that point that an offer of suitable alternative accommodation will be made and only when an appropriate-sized dwelling becomes available. Under the terms of the Stormont House Agreement, my Department is working on the detail of this mitigation measure, and the scheme details will be brought to the Executive in the very near future. I trust that that gives some reassurance to Members.   Mervyn Storey, MLA  Offical Report, 24 February 2015

The proposals on how the Discretionary Housing Payment Scheme will operate will be subject to consultation.  Interested parties will have an opportunity to air their thoughts on important issues, including what would be considered "suitable alternative accommodation" and what constitutes a change of circumstances, during this consultation process.

Tagged In

Benefits, Welfare Reform, NI Assembly

This article was written on 25 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.