COVID-19: Self-isolation Payment Update

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 17th November 2020.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 17th November 2020

I have received notice from the Minister for Communities that she wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has, of course, been relaxed. Members do still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. They can do that by rising in their place, as well as by notifying the Business Office or the Speaker's Table directly. I ask Members to be concise in asking their questions. Thank you very much.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I want to update the House today on some of the measures that my party colleague Deirdre Hargey instigated as Minister for Communities to ensure that the Department for Communities could support people who are affected by COVID-19.

As Members will be aware, as part of the response to the current pandemic, my Department introduced a number of emergency changes to the discretionary support scheme. Those measures included increasing the maximum income that a person can receive before becoming ineligible for discretionary support. This means that anybody with an income of up to £20,405, whether they are in work or receiving benefits, may be eligible for a payment.

We introduced a new discretionary support self-isolation grant for people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or are advised to self-isolate in accordance with official guidance. With the introduction of that new grant scheme on 25 March 2020, we ensured that people in the North who are on a low income were amongst the first to be able to access specific financial support. There simply has been no comparable support available to most people in Britain.

I am pleased to note that the rapid response of the Assembly in approving the necessary changes to the discretionary support legislation, alongside the effort of my Department in implementing the changes, has had a very real and direct impact on so many people. That is clearly evident by the extent of the support already made available. The latest available information shows that, between 25 March and 31 October 2020, my Department awarded 14,800 self-isolation grants with a total value of £2·1 million. That is money going directly to people who have found themselves in a crisis situation during the pandemic. However, it is clear that we all continue to face unprecedented challenges as the effects of the pandemic show little signs of abating. Therefore, it is essential that we continue to monitor the support that we can provide to ensure that we help the people who need it most.

I have decided that it is appropriate to introduce some enhancements to the scheme. Those changes do not require new legislation, and I have, therefore, instructed my officials to implement the revised policy immediately. The changes that I have made are designed to enhance the level of financial support that is available through the self-isolation grant. It is hoped that that will be of particular benefit to people who are temporarily unable to work.

In practical terms, my Department will now use higher daily rates of benefit when calculating the amount of an award. Decision makers will also be expected to take into account the impact of the financial shock of self-isolation when calculating the number of days for which to make an award. That is appropriate as a sudden and temporary reduction in normal income levels will mean that a person is at greater risk of experiencing hardship. Therefore, an award of living expenses to cover the whole period of self-isolation should always be considered.

I believe firmly that the discretionary support self-isolation grant offers an enhanced overall package when compared to other areas. For example, the Irish Government have provided support for people who are required to self-isolate that is based on a fixed weekly payment and treated as taxable income. In England, Scotland and Wales, the test-and-trace payment offers fixed amounts of £500 for 14 days, regardless of family circumstances, and the payment is available only to those who have been told to self-isolate by the NHS Test and Trace service. They must prove that they are unable to work and have lost income as a result. The payment is also taxable.

The self-isolation payments that are available here are targeted at those who are in need and are always assessed based on their personal circumstances. That means that, rather than making a fixed payment that does not take account of the size of a family, we will always take into account all dependent children and include them in an award. For example, under the new rules, a couple with three children can receive £683 of discretionary support to cover a period of 14 days. That payment is not taxable and further awards can be made if the family continues to find themselves in a crisis situation. Those payments will also not affect any future applications to the discretionary support scheme. The self-isolation payments can be made if a person is self-isolating because they or someone else in their household is displaying symptoms. Entitlement is not restricted to those who have been contacted and told to self-isolate.

I stress again that if people continue to find themselves in a crisis situation after receiving a self-isolation grant, they can apply for further support. There is no limit to the number of grants that can be awarded. I also believe strongly that the enhancements that have been introduced to the scheme are another important step in strengthening an already comprehensive package of support.

To conclude, the discretionary support self-isolation grant is a very important and accessible means of providing financial support to those who are affected by COVID when they need it most. We know that COVID-19 has widened the gap in our communities and impacted people differently, and it has had a disastrous impact on the people and families who were already struggling. People should be supported to isolate if they need to without fear of going under or being further penalised financially. That is why I have improved the level and duration of financial support that is available to those who are eligible to apply for it. I will continue to keep that under review, and I would welcome Members' feedback as we need to make sure that we keep providing support where and when it is needed.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I promise that I will be a lot briefer this time than I was the last time, when I asked four questions. I thank the Minister for a very welcome statement and her good manners in calling me last night and informing me of what was in the statement.

The Minister will know that statistics show that 80% of those in part-time employment are female, with some having more than one job and many working in the hospitality sector.

They are already facing real hardship coming up to Christmas, and beyond, owing to the situation with the hospitality sector, without then receiving a notification that they have to self-isolate. This is therefore very welcome, and I am sure that it will help many families.

I want to touch on the issue of fraud. We know that people are missing appointments at our test centres and receiving positive test results from that. Are there any safeguards in here when it comes to fraud? We really want to distinguish between those in need, which is what this is for, and those for whom it is sheer greed.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Chair for her question. She will know that there have been problems with the test-and-trace app. I have to say, however, that the Department is working with people on the basis of need and what they ask for as part of their application process. If, like with any other benefit, it is later found that there were fraudulent claims, we will have to deal with those, but, up until now, most people who have contacted the Department have been genuine cases. As you said in the preamble to your question, a lot of those people are working two jobs — at least — and if they have to self-isolate, this is a lifeline for them. I therefore imagine that most of the claims, if not them all, are completely genuine, and that is the approach that we will be taking.

Photo of Sinéad Ennis Sinéad Ennis Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement and for her continued good work to ensure that the people who need our support at this time are getting it. The support available here far outweighs what is available in other jurisdictions.

I ask the Minister what her Department is doing to raise awareness of the enhanced support available. We want to make sure that there is maximum uptake of the grant.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The first step is to remind people that this help is out there today, because it is quite clear that, although many people — almost 15,000 — have applied for discretionary support, there are many others who are completely unaware of it or who think that it is a loan rather than a grant. We are all hearing that in our constituency offices. From today therefore, having made the statement, I will also ensure that our media outlets, our advice and welfare networks and, indeed, our constituency offices all have this statement, because they, particularly our constituency offices, are usually the first point of contact for many people. When people contact us, particularly about something like this, they are in distress, so we need to minimise that for people who need our support.

Photo of Mark Durkan Mark Durkan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her statement and very much welcome her decision to increase the amount of support that some people in desperate need can get. What we want to see, however, is an increase in the number of people who can get that support. The prohibitively low income threshold of £20,400 a household means that many working families and individuals remain ineligible for financial assistance. Their bills do not stop as a result of having to self-isolate, and many are left with the extremely difficult decision of either to follow the government guidance or to work to feed their family. Will the Minister consider raising the threshold?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that Deirdre Hargey increased the threshold, and I am going to look at it again. You are right in the sense that we need to have more people applying for the grant, because they need it, but we also need to make sure that it is going to be supportive: that it will be a help rather than a hindrance. I will be talking to officials again this afternoon, and one of the questions that I will be asking them is whether we can do it without impacting on parity. You will know this as a member of the Committee, but, even though this Assembly accepted legislation brought forward to increase the threshold, I am looking to see what I can do within my vires to make it easier for those people who need it most, particularly going into the winter months and particularly if they are at home, where they are eating more and heating more. We need to make it easy for people, not only to get access to the grant but to ensure that they qualify for it.

Photo of Andy Allen Andy Allen UUP

I echo the comments of colleagues around the Chamber in welcoming this much-required enhancement. I thank you for bringing it forward.

Minister, my constituency office team and I have supported many constituents to avail themselves of this grant. As you have highlighted, it is a lifeline for many. With that in mind, can you advise on the average time taken to process the claims and on any steps that you have taken within the discretionary support system to ensure that claims are processed efficiently?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 17th November 2020

I am told by officials that applications are being processed as quickly as possible. However, in my constituency office and on social media, I have received reports to say that that is not the case across the board. My commitment to all of you is that I will review this on an almost weekly basis. I need to ensure that those who need access to these payments get them, and get them in a timely fashion when they need it most. I urge Members to please let me know if they hear any reports to the contrary.

Photo of Kellie Armstrong Kellie Armstrong Alliance

Any enhancements to payments that can be made to people who are vulnerable, at this time, are very welcome, so thank you very much. Your statement indicates that your front-line staff are the decision makers. Ms Ennis asked about promotion and the knowledge that people have. How much training will your decision makers have? Do you have enough money for this and have you enough money set aside pay out because, hopefully, people will take it up?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question. For each change that is made regarding this or any other support, the decision makers will have it again and again and again, because we need to ensure that consistent information is going out. Yes, there is enough money in the budget, for now. The important thing is that, between now and the new year, we need to try to give people support to self-isolate. As the Chair of the Committee said, there are people who are making the decision to not self-isolate because they cannot afford to. We know that the rate of people who have to self-isolate, or who are impacted by COVID, has not abated in the way that we would have hoped. We need to try to support people to stay at home and it is our obligation to do that.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. It is a good news story, so well done. Can I reaffirm with the Minister that anybody who has to self-isolate three or four times will still be able to apply for this? Will it also affect those on tax credits?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his sentiments. As I said in the statement, people can apply for this when they need it. Unfortunately, due to the length of the pandemic, some people have had to isolate at least once; others a lot more than that. It is a non-taxable grant. Therefore, it should not impact on tax credits. We need to make sure that what we give on one hand is seen in the other. That is not the case across other jurisdictions and we do not want that to happen. Many people who are on tax credits are already on a low income. We need to ensure that, after their application and when this support is given to them, they know exactly what they are getting and exactly what they have.

Photo of Órlaithí Flynn Órlaithí Flynn Sinn Féin

Mr Allen has already touched on this. Does the Minister foresee that today's announcement will lead to an increase in claims and possible delays in the processing of further cases?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I really hope that there is an increase in people making applications, because, while almost 15,000 have done so up until now, we know that there are many others who are out of work, self-isolating, impacted and affected by COVID. I hope that there are no further delays. As I said to other Members, if you or anybody else has concerns or are hearing reports that there are undue delays, then get in contact with us. That is not what we want, it is not what I or the officials want — they are processing the applications as quickly as they can to get money into people's bank accounts and pockets as quickly as they need them.

Photo of Pam Cameron Pam Cameron DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. The discretionary support self-isolation grant is a lifeline for many people who are on low incomes and who are required to self-isolate. I welcome the news that the daily allowance payable has been increased. Does the Minister agree that these grants are crucial for encouraging and enabling individuals to complete their period of self-isolation? Is her Department working with the Department of Health or the Public Health Agency (PHA) to take the opportunity to provide additional information as to what is actually required around self-isolation?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question, and she is right: it is a lifeline. As MLAs with, I am sure, a busy constituency office, we have all got the distressed phone calls, and our constituency staff have as well. Through the Executive information website and our discussions with colleagues in Health and the PHA we are genuinely trying to ensure that there are no gaps. As I mentioned in response to Mark Durkan's question, that is on my list for discussions with officials just to be sure, to be sure. I have heard too many reports of people still feeling that this is a loan and that is why they did not apply, so something has gone wrong. We need to ensure that any clarification that is needed is provided after the statement this morning and that every aspect of government is aware of it. We are all living in each other's shadow, as we should be, but one Department should not be ringing another Department to find out what this is about; everybody should have the same level of consistency about this information.

Photo of Pat Catney Pat Catney Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. It has to be welcomed. I welcome the easier payment method that will be used for the self-isolation payment. I know that 4,800 people were successful with their application up until October, but will the Minister inform me of how many people were unsuccessful?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I do not have that information. It is 14,800 people, Pat, so it is almost 15,000. I do not have the information about how many people were unsuccessful in terms of data from the Department. I have the anecdotal evidence. I have the people who are reaching out by email on our Assembly email, my constituency office and, indeed, on social media to tell me different, so there is an issue. When we get through this, we will start clicking through each of the questions that have been raised and will put this one down for clarification. If we have that data, I will certainly share it with the Member.

Photo of Emma Rogan Emma Rogan Sinn Féin

Minister, you outlined how this support compares with what is available in Britain. Will you give us a brief outline on how it compares with what is available in the South?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The support is taxable in other jurisdictions, including the South. It is also for a fixed period in other jurisdictions, which it is not here. Indeed, the difficulty that I have, certainly with the other jurisdictions, is that they are giving it to people with one hand and taking it off them with the other. That is grossly unjust and grossly unfair.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Like others, I welcome the Minister's announcement. Those who are on low incomes will welcome it. It is a very worthy statement for the Minister to make. Given that some of those people are on low incomes and will return to work after the two-week period, is any protection afforded to them through their employer, as I am sure that there are cases of employers who do not want to release them? Whilst money is one thing, they are probably looking for job security as well. Is the Department doing anything on that to give them the guarantees that employers cannot move towards them during their periods of isolation?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

The issue that I have always had with the fragility of zero-hours contracts in particular is that people are even more vulnerable and more susceptible to exploitation, if any employer is minded to do that, or, for want of a better term, if any employer wants to chance their arm. Employees have rights, and we will remind them of the rights that they have. If there are any indications or examples of workers feeling that they have not been given the due respect or, indeed, the due entitlement from their employer, I will certainly welcome hearing who they are and where their employer is. I would be happy to share that information with the Member's colleague Diane Dodds, because I am sure that she would not have that either.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her answers thus far. The mantra for months now has been that we need a proper test, trace, isolate and support scheme.

We now have in place a scheme that allows low-paid workers to isolate and receive support. The Minister indicated earlier that she was looking at the level of income that a family can have to be able to claim the support. How quickly will she be able to carry out that review?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I will carry out the review as quickly as possible and look at the questions that have been raised, and I will put the officials on notice. I want to get the data, and, following Pat Catney's question, I will try to capture the data from people who were rejected.

As the Member will be aware, Deirdre Hargey increased the threshold. If I need to do that, and if I can do that, I will look to do that. People may think that £20,400 is a decent enough wage, but if that is your only income and you are paying all your bills and rearing your kids, it all adds up. So, we need to ensure that people who need the support get the support, and we will find out very shortly if the level of income needs to be increased because if it prevented people getting access to support, it is a problem that we need to look at.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

The 14-day self-isolation period starts from the date that the message is delivered to the COVID app on a person's mobile phone. That is often not 14 days from when the person was last in contact with somebody with COVID-19. Will the Minister agree with me that an urgent and timely roll-out of the update to the app is crucial? That could see the amount of time that somebody is isolating reduced in some instances by 13 days, which would, therefore, ensure that her Department has more money to spend.

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I agree that there are issues with the app even for people who get confirmation of a negative or positive test result. The fact that they have gone to get a test means that they have concerns.

With regard to Trevor's question, we want to make sure that employers are adhering to that good practice because we are asking people who have any symptoms to isolate straight away, but we cannot ask people to follow government guidance and then have their salaries deducted because they have to wait for two days for a result from the app. We need to make sure that the app is better, but I want to make sure that, when people apply for the payment, they get it as quickly as possible and they are not held back by further bureaucracy that is not of their making.

Photo of Daniel McCrossan Daniel McCrossan Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for her much-welcomed statement. It will come as a relief to many, as will her reassurances that she will look at the threshold, which we in the SDLP welcome. There are people out there saying that, when they come into contact with someone and get the alert, they cannot afford to isolate. That is a very difficult place for many to be in. Any support from this Assembly will alleviate that pressure.

The Minister spoke of parity. According to her, this scheme is more generous than elsewhere, but it is much more difficult to access, according to reports. What was the Barnett consequential derived from the introduction in Westminster of the self-isolation grant? Has all that money gone into this scheme?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin

I received AME, so it is an AME issue rather than a Barnett issue because it is benefits related, so the money is there. If I understand the Member's question properly, there were issues regarding clarity over whether it was a grant or a loan. We all heard too many stories about people who felt that it was a loan and they did not want to get into any more debt.

The issue is that we, as a Government, are asking people to self-isolate, but we cannot ask people to self-isolate and not support them. That is the bottom line. So, that is what we are trying to do. Will there be lessons learned as a result of this? I am sure that there will be. It is like anything that we bring forward. We need to accept the good parts, change the parts that do not work and try to make it better in the future. Rather than waiting on a perfect fit, we need to get it changed, get it out, get it clarified, and, hopefully, people will get the support that they need.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Minister for her statement. The £2·1 million divided out equally amongst 14,800 people amounts to around £150 each. I assume that some people got less and others got more. Is the Minister aware of the average payment that people received? How many people received £500 or more?

Photo of Carál Ní Chuilín Carál Ní Chuilín Sinn Féin 11:00 am, 17th November 2020

The payment is better than £500. The £500 or €350 are fixed and taxable. If £100, €100 or €140 is taken for tax, the payment is less. If, for example, a couple has three children, they can receive £683 for the 14-day period of one isolation. If the same family has to isolate six or seven weeks later, they can expect to receive the same amount of support. That is not the case elsewhere. As long as the pandemic continues and more families are impacted by COVID, at least, once they have to isolate — I have heard of families having to isolate two and three times — we can ensure that we support them. We are asking them to follow government guidelines, so we need to make sure that the support is there, be it discretionary support, business support or whatever. If there is hardship, we need to get support out to people.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the Minister's statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a couple of moments as we move to the next item of business.