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This bulletin will be distributed bi-weekly.

LCNI Social Security Bulletin

No. 28 -  10th September 2019

Social Security News

Joint report on Welfare Policy: “UK Government Must Act Quickly”

The Work and Pensions Committee and Northern Ireland Affairs Committee have published their joint report on Welfare Policy in Northern Ireland. The report calls on the UK Government to act urgently to address the mitigations “cliff edge”.

The report begins by clearly recognising Northern Ireland’s special circumstances, stating that “welfare reforms should not apply [in Northern Ireland] in the same way as in the rest of the UK”. It also recognises that many claimants are unaware of the Welfare Supplementary Payments Scheme, or that payments are due to end.

The Report then goes on to make a number of recommendations, including:
  • The extension of the mitigation package beyond March 2020;
  • The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to bring forward legislation as quickly as possible;
  • The Department for Communities to consider continuing funding independent welfare reform advisory services beyond 2020;
  • The UK Government to avoid using Discretionary Housing Payments to cover the loss of mitigations; and
  • Removing measures that created an underspend in Discretionary Support Awards and the Universal Credit Contingency Fund.
The report states:

The mitigation package should therefore be extended after March 2020. This should include the SSSC (“bedroom tax”) and benefit cap mitigations, disability-related mitigations already being paid to claimants, and DLA to PIP transition mitigation for 16 year-olds. The Department for Communities should also consider continuing the contract for independent advisory services after 2020.

The UK Government must act quickly to end the uncertainty around the mitigation package… The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland should therefore make a statement to Parliament as soon as possible to make clear the UK Government’s intention to pass the necessary legislation to extend the mitigation package and bring forward such legislation to come into effect before the end of March 2020….

We accept that legislation to extend the mitigation package falls within the scope of devolved competence. However, the circumstances surrounding the package ending are clearly exceptional: a potentially drastic impact on vulnerable people and no Assembly to extend the legislation.


The report also addresses specific aspects of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland, recognising the success of fortnightly payments and automatic direct payments to landlords. It also recognises issues with the uptake of split payments and the two-child limit.

Law Centre NI raised these issues in its response to the enquiry back in May 2019. However, the Law Centre NI’s response urged that a mitigation package should go further by responding to new and emerging challenges arising from the full implementation of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland.

Adviser Network Meeting: Friday 13 September 2019, 11 am - 1 pm 

Advisers in the north west area are invited to the next adviser network meeting at Advice North West, 5th Floor Embassy Building, 3 Strand Road, Derry/Londonderry, BT48 7BJ. Adviser network meetings provide you with the latest updates on current law and practice as well as an opportunity for peer to peer discussion among advisers.

To book your place, please email admin.belfast@lawcentreni.org


 
New Law Centre NI Adviser Guides 

Law Centre NI recently published two new adviser guides on PIP and UC. You can find our guides here:
Help us improve our guides.

In order to make future improvements to our adviser guides, we want to hear your feedback. If you have used either of the guides above, please complete this quick pulse survey. It just takes 30 seconds.



Impact of Benefits Freeze Revealed 

New data from Citizens Advice GB has highlighted the impact of the benefits freeze on claimants. The report states that “49% of benefit claimants affected by the benefits freeze have struggled to meet essential costs such as rent, household bills and food while 40% have lost sleep due to money worries in the past 12 months.” The figures get worse for claimants on Universal Credit, rising to 55%. Disabled people with children were also more likely to have gone without essentials such as food and toiletries, according to the stats.

The new data comes on the back of a call from Citizen Advice GB to end the freeze on benefit rates and reduce the five-week wait for Universal Credit claims.

UK Government Announces Spending Review 

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid, announced the UK Government’s new spending plans in a Spending Review to Parliament on Wednesday 4th September 2019.

The review announced some minor initiatives around social security:
  • £36 million to ensure [Department of Work and Pensions] decision-making is accurate and the application processes are straightforward and accessible, as well as improving safeguarding by creating a new independent Serious Case Panel;
  • £7 million to expand Jobcentre advisor support in schools for young people with special educational needs and extending eligibility for Access to Work to internships for disabled people; and
  • £23 million to fund a range of other measures, including support for vulnerable claimants and people with complex needs migrating to Universal Credit, additional outreach activities to support those who are homeless, and increasing the number of Armed Forces champions to support veterans when entering the labour market.
The review also committed to continue to:
  • Help people move into work and support their progression in work, through targeted employment support programmes and tailored interventions for disadvantaged groups;
  • Improve financial security through the accurate and timely administration of benefit payments, including the secure delivery of Universal Credit; and
  • Deliver frontline services to ensure individuals receive the best customer service experience.
What Next for Bereavement Benefits? 

In August 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that denying Widowed Parent’s Allowance to unmarried parents breached human rights law. Siobhan McLaughlin, who won a major case in relation to bereavement benefits, has said it is “shameful” no action has yet been taken by the Government to legislate following the Supreme Court decision.

Law Centre NI currently has a referral to the Court of Appeal listed for hearing arguing that Bereavement Support Payment, the benefit that replaced Widowed Parent’s Allowance, is discriminating against a client on human rights grounds.

Universal Credit 

Extent and Success of Welfare Reform Payment Flexibilities Revealed

In a letter to the Work and Pensions Committee, the Department for Communities Permanent Secretary, Tracy Meharg, revealed the extent and success of automatic fortnightly payments and automatic direct payments to landlords. The letter stated that “only around a dozen” claimants opted out of fortnightly payments and “fewer than 20” claimants opted out of direct payments.

Law Centre NI argued for the need to secure these flexibilities and the statistics reveal their overwhelming success.
 
On the Frontline

Law Centre NI Digital Adviser Guides Hit 10,000 views

2018/19 saw an increase in PIP appeals in Northern Ireland and in the last year there were just under 10,000 views of our digital guides. Law Centre NI would like to thank advisers for continuing to direct clients to the guides in advance of their PIP appeal hearings. The guides are designed to support unrepresented claimants to navigate the tribunal process.

Provision of Legislation with Appeal Papers

The Operational Forum has asked Law Centre NI to consult with members and advisers on the provision of legislation when appeal papers are circulated. Currently both a summary and a full copy of the legislation are supplied to claimants along with appeal papers. There has been a suggestion that claimants find this confusing and so work has been done to make the process more user friendly, sign posting to decisions on the internet. A suggestion has been made to remove the full copy of legislation.

Law Centre NI has made a case that a full copy of the legislation should be included for PIP and UC. If you would like to have your say on this matter, please email our social security hub on info@lawcenterni.org.

Law Centre NI Social Security Law & Practice Conference Bookings

Law Centre NI’s social security law and practice conference 2019 ‘The Future of Social Security’ is taking bookings. The conference will take place at NICVA on Thursday 24th October. Book now to secure a 10% ‘early bird’ discount.

Already confirmed for the conference are guest speakers Baroness Ruth Lister and Professor Eileen Evason.



Adviser Top Tip

Recovery from Arrears

Where clients are due arrears of benefit these arrears can be withheld and diverted to pay off outstanding overpayment debts. This can result in hardship for claimants especially those in receipt of Universal Credit where existing deductions can have an impact on housing costs. 

Advisers should be aware of the following DWP guidance and the discretionary power available to the Department not to withhold due arrears in certain circumstances:

“Recovery from Arrears 

5.49 Where a debtor with an outstanding overpayment is due arrears of benefit, these arrears can be withheld in full to recover an overpayment or Administrative Penalty unless those arrears arose as a consequence of a benefit award being suspended. Reg 102 of the Housing Benefit Regulations 2006 also allow for arrears to be used for the recovery of a [Housing Benefit] overpayment. We do not use arrears of benefit to recover any advance that has not converted to be recovered as an overpayment or any Social Fund Debt. 

5.50 Additionally, as a matter of policy arrears are not withheld if the following circumstances apply:
  • The arrears are for full periods’ benefit that have not been paid on time (this is regardless of whether the arrears are due from the start, middle or end of claim) and the customer is not deceased;
  • The arrears are for a specific reason and are earmarked for a specific purchase or expenditure. This scenario normally only occurs with recipients of income related benefits in relation to such things as mortgage arrears or where they are for Universal Credit Housing Costs.
  • Where a payment is made at a ‘safe rate’ which excludes a particular component of the claim pending verification (e.g. verification of housing costs/rent); then once that component has been verified we would not withhold those arrears against outstanding debts.”
If a claimant is not aware of deductions from housing costs it may be arguable that they have earmarked due arrears to deal with the housing costs deficit and therefore they should not be withheld.

Training Courses

Benefits for non-Benefits Advisers

When: Tuesday 24th September 2019, 10am-4pm, delivered over a single day.
Where: Law Centre NI, 2nd Floor Westgate House, 2-4 Queen Street, Belfast, BT1 6ED.
What: This one day introductory level course familiarises you with the structure of the current benefits system in Northern Ireland; categories of benefits; and the basic principles of disputing a benefit decision.

For more information or bookings, complete an online enquiry form or email training@lawcentreni.org.

For the full list of accredited and non-accredited training courses on offer, see our website.

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