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Housing Benefit (Welfare Supplementary Payment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2017

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 16th January 2017.

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Photo of Paul Givan Paul Givan DUP 12:15 pm, 16th January 2017

We all know too well what Sinn Féin's agenda is when it comes to respect. Equality: the Trojan Horse to break the unionists. They know what Gerry Adams said thereafter about the unionist population. Mr Speaker, we will not be lectured about respect by the Members opposite, and we will continue to maintain our positions that are principled and based on sound values. We will not allow the twisting of what equality really is all about. Unionists know exactly what Sinn Féin's agenda is when it comes to equality.

The regulations that I am bringing to the Assembly today are being brought in under article 137A of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 and will make provision for welfare supplementary payment to ensure that claimants are not financially disadvantaged by the changes to housing benefit introduced under article 75 of the Order.

The social sector size criteria will change how housing benefit is calculated for working-age claimants who have a tenancy in a Housing Executive or housing association property. Pensioners will not be affected by this change. The change to housing benefit will bring restrictions to entitlement to housing benefit where a claimant is under-occupying a property. Accordingly, those claimants who occupy a property that is larger than their household size warrants will see a reduction in their housing benefit payment.

Data provided by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive suggests that, as at May 2015, these changes could affect up to 33,916 households in receipt of housing benefit. The regulations will give my Department the powers to make welfare supplementary payments to current and future housing benefit claimants who qualify for a payment over the life of the Fresh Start Agreement until March 2020. The Executive will review the operation of the mitigation scheme in 2018-19.

The Department will identify housing benefit claimants who are eligible for mitigation, and claimants will automatically receive their welfare supplementary payment. Claimants will not have to apply for a welfare supplementary payment. The welfare supplementary payment will be calculated to ensure the claimant does not incur any financial disadvantage as a result of the application of the size criteria to their housing benefit entitlement.

Welfare supplementary payments will cease where the claimant is no longer entitled to housing benefit or where the social sector size criteria no longer applies to them. If the claimant undergoes a change of circumstances that alters the application of the SSSC to their housing benefit entitlement, their welfare supplementary payment will increase or decrease to reflect the change. Welfare supplementary payments will also increase in accordance with rent increases in the social rented sector, and claimants will receive their welfare supplementary payment every four weeks in arrears throughout the mitigation period until March 2020.

If a claimant is receiving a welfare supplementary payment and they transfer to another property in the social rented sector in which they under-occupy at a lower level, they will continue to receive a welfare supplementary payment at that reduced level. If a claimant is receiving welfare supplementary payment and they transfer to another property in the social rented sector where they continue to under-occupy to the same or a greater extent than in their previous property, they will no longer receive a welfare supplementary payment.

Claimants will retain their mitigation payment if they transfer to another property in the social rented sector under one of the management transfer scheme categories. This scheme makes a claimant a priority to be moved and includes claimants who need to move because of domestic violence or who need to move to an adapted home due to disability or long-term illness.

In the majority of situations, the supplementary payment will be made directly to the landlord. In situations where the claimant normally receives their housing benefit directly, they will also receive their welfare supplementary payment directly.

I can also confirm that these welfare supplementary payments will be disregarded when considering a person’s entitlement to social security benefits or working tax credits and that they will not be taxable.

I appreciate that some Members may have concerns that the regulations provide for welfare supplementary payments to be stopped in cases where an individual decides to leave their current tenancy and move to a new house where they under-occupy at the same level or an increased level. As Minister with responsibility for housing as well as social welfare, I have to balance my responsibilities to manage the social housing stock whilst protecting individuals impacted upon by the new arrangements for housing benefit when they are making decisions on whether to move house. It is important that Members are aware that these provisions do not apply to tenants who have to move house because of domestic violence, intimidation or a range of other circumstances set out in the managed transfer list.

However, I am conscious of concerns of Members, and, in response to those concerns, I am, today, committing to publish, on a six-monthly basis, the number of households that may have their mitigations stopped as a consequence of provisions in regulation 2. If these numbers are considered to be excessive, I am also committing to go back to the Executive for them to consider a review of the regulations, if required. I hope that that commitment will allay Members' concerns and enable them to support the regulations to ensure that 34,000 householders will receive the financial support that they will require come February.

Let me be clear: whilst all of the debate has been going on because of the actions that Sinn Féin has taken, I have been very clear that the most vulnerable should not be used during this election campaign. That is why I have engaged, since the actions of Sinn Féin, to seek a resolution through the extraordinary measures that I am having to take today in the absence of an Executive.

Irrespective of the political campaign that will now take place during this election, we must not allow the most vulnerable in our society to pay the price because of the actions of Sinn Féin. It was not just Sinn Féin that wanted the election; People Before Profit said, "Let's have a riot at the ballot box". The consequences of that approach put 34,000 people at risk to the bedroom tax because 20 February is when the bedroom tax comes in in Northern Ireland. That date is in primary legislation; it cannot be changed, but we have the ability through a mitigation process, which we in this party wanted, to protect people from the bedroom tax. Today, by voting for these regulations, not one person will be faced with the bedroom tax. That is the responsible thing for MLAs to do, given the crisis that these institutions now find themselves in on this the last day of sittings of this Assembly. I trust that there will be a return to these institutions after the negotiations that clearly will now need to take place because of the actions of Sinn Féin. At that point, MLAs will be able to revisit it.