With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will take questions 5 and 6 together. The social sector size criteria are due to be introduced in Northern Ireland on 20 February. My officials have been preparing the necessary systems and processes to ensure that no claimant in Northern Ireland suffers any negative financial impact as a consequence to the changes in how housing benefit is calculated.
Urgent measures have been taken to ensure that the Department has the legal powers to mitigate the impact of the social sector size criteria. The necessary legislation was approved by the Assembly on 16 January to give the Department powers to make accurate and timely payments to the estimated 34,000 housing benefit claimants who may be impacted by the introduction of the social sector size criteria. The legislation sets out in detail all the measures that my Department will be taking to mitigate the social sector size criteria.
Claimants who are eligible for a welfare supplementary payment will be paid four weeks in arrears, and the first payments will be made in the current financial year.
I thank the Minister for his answers. I recognise the fact that this will be his final appearance in Question Time in this mandate and put on record my thanks for his help in some constituency matters in respect of housing.
Given that Fresh Start was launched with much fanfare on 17 November 2015 and the mitigation package in respect of the protections against the bedroom tax was heralded as one of the critical successful elements of that, why then has the bringing forward of the regulations to protect people been left so late? In fact, it was left to just a few weeks before the introduction of the bedroom tax itself.
Let me thank the Member for her kind words in respect of my tenure as Minister. I know that she has been a very strong advocate for her constituents and has brought cases to me consistently in respect of their housing needs. I am sure that that will be recognised.
Obviously, the mitigation measures did not just include the social sector size criteria, or bedroom tax. We have had to introduce a whole range of mitigation measures to the introduction of welfare reform into Northern Ireland, bedroom tax being one of them. All the plans to have them introduced were being run through according to a proper time frame. In the normal course of the business of politics, there was no risk whatsoever of our not having the legislation in place to mitigate that. Ultimately, when we explored all the options, that is why I was able to lay it down through the urgent route, directly into the Assembly, to get it done. Nobody could have legislated for the actions that Sinn Féin took to pull down the Executive. Of course, I am relieved that we were able to find a way, and Members supported me in that approach, to mitigate that so that the most vulnerable people are not impacted by what has happened to this institution.
Thank you, Minister. The issue that is front of us is very reminiscent of that which is facing the Health Minister on waiting lists in that a lot of the responses to these crises are, as Nichola mentioned, very late in the day. Are you satisfied that, in the eight months that you have been the Communities Minister, you have influenced the 9,600 builds, as you outlined, so that they will be future-proofed against this sort of thing happening again, there will be different housing types across different tenures for the future and people will have the right sized houses to suit their needs?
I set a very clear direction of travel. The foundations have been laid in respect of the commitment to build social housing, which would have been, over the course of the mandate, five years, a very challenging target to reach. Of course, housing is a real challenge for people with regard to building what we need; not just social housing but, of course, in the private sector. A course of work was being looked at in respect of how we would free up the Housing Executive to allow it to do the things that it does best and also allow access to the private markets. Obviously, that will have to sit in abeyance, and the next Executive and Assembly will have pick up where we are in respect of that.
As regards meeting the challenges around the pressures on supply, again, I had been undertaking a course of work with the private sector which I was going to chair — a stakeholder group to identify all the issues around that. It is not just to do with the actual building of houses, it is about identifying the availability of land, navigating in some communities where they do not want to have houses built and how you go through all that process linking in to community planning. There are certainly pieces of work there that I am confident a future Minister will be able to pick up and develop, but that will ultimately be a matter for the next Executive and Assembly to deal with.
Welfare supplementary payments under the bedroom tax are calculated to offset the financial disadvantage that the claimant incurs as a result of the application of size criteria to their housing benefit entitlement. The amount of welfare supplementary payment that a claimant receives will be dependent on the claimant's housing benefit entitlement and their degree of under-occupation. Housing benefit claimants who are affected by the bedroom tax will see a reduction in their housing benefit component calculated by a reduction of 14% of the total eligible rent for under-occupancy by one bedroom and 25% of the total eligible rent for under-occupancy by two or more bedrooms.