Welfare Reform Bill Amendments (Too Long; Didn't Read)

13 Feb 2015 Bob Harper    Last updated: 25 Feb 2015

The Consideration Stage of the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Bill (2012) took place at the Assembly on Tuesday and Wednesday 10 & 11 Feb. Some 78 amendments and opposition to 17 clauses were debated over the course of 19 hours.

NICVA has previously outlined its position as regards to welfare reform. With this in mind, the Consideration Stage of the Bill was an important first step to ensuring that mitigations were present.

Consideration Stage forms the main part of considering the amendments to the Bill, and is the stage at which Members vote on the amendments, clauses and schedules.

A full list of the amendments and the progress of the Welfare Reform Bill can be viewed on the Assembly website. The Bill, as it currently stands prior to Further Consideration Stage, is now available.

This article attempts to summarise, in short order, the amendments that were made to the Bill and the debate that took place, using Hansard excepts from the Tuesday and Wednesday sessions. The table of contents below can be used to navigate between the amendments by their grouping. Group 5 is not included as this mainly concerns technical amendments that are too minor to substantially change the Bill.

Some of the amendments and opposition to clauses in the Bill were proposed by the Minister for Social Development. Many of these came about from the political discussions under the Stormont Castle Agreement. Other amendments were proposed by other parties. It is also important to note that many of the mitigations proposed by the Minister for Social Development will not be in this legislation, but rather they will take effect in the 900 or so regulations that are planned to be brought in by his Department.

Further Consideration Stage, where further amendments may be made, is scheduled to take place on 24 February 2015. You can read our priorities for Further Consideration Stage here.

 

Group 1 – Duties on the Department, administration and assessments

Group One amendments focused on the duties faced by the department under Bill as well as administration and assessments.

In this group there were 25 amendments including opposition to clause 99 which were tabled by the Committee following their scrutiny two years ago. The Committee were not bound by this any longer as they were satisfied by commitments from the Minister that he would mitigate many of their concerns in subsequent regulations, following this the amendment did pass.

Of the 25 amendments four were not passed as they were subject to the petition of concern mechanism, 16 amendments were not moved (this allows the potential for them to be reintroduced at Further Consideration Stage), one amendment fell as it was consequential to a previous amendment, two amendments passed. One of the successful amendments was from the Minister which removed a clause as it was no longer relevant due to previous legislation. The other successful amendment came from the UUP who widened the scope of one amendment to take account of medical evidence.

Summary of Amendments

Amendment 1 – FAILED (Petition of Concern)
Claimant Commitment

Clause 4, Page 3, Line 5
At end insert -
‘(8) Regulations shall provide, in circumstances where one member of a couple does not accept a claimant commitment within a prescribed period, that the claim may be considered as a claim by the other member of the couple as a single person.’

Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Robin Swann

In moving the amendment Mr Roy Beggs (UUP) stated “However, it was a mistake in the draft policy to allow a situation where, if one member of a household failed, for whatever reason, to sign their commitment, the rest of the household would be penalised”

Responding to this Mr Sammy Wilson (DUP) stated “Does he recognise that the difficultly with his amendment is that it opens the door for those who choose to not make any commitment to seek a job? Under the shelter of his amendment, they may hide behind their family or their family's vulnerability so that they do not have to live up to the requirements that anyone would expect of someone who is claiming benefits?”

Mrs Dolores Kelly (SDLP) – responded by stating “We are happy to support that amendment, which will help when there is a breakdown in a family relationship or a lack of cooperation so that one family member will not suffer.”

Amendment 3 - NOT MOVED (Would have inserted a new clause regarding the claimant commitment)
New Clause
After clause 6 insert -
‘Joint claims where one party does not accept claimant commitment
6A. In a claim by members of a couple jointly, where one party does not accept a claimant commitment the claim shall proceed as if the party who has signed a claimant commitment had made a single person claim and payment shall be made to that party.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

The UUP felt this was “unnecessary” given they proposed in amendment 1.

Countering this, the SDLP stated “No 3, which proposes a new clause after clause 6. It is similar to the amendment that Roy Beggs proposed. We just felt that ours was in a different place in the Bill; it is more just a question of where it is positioned rather than any of the policy intention.”

Amendment 4 - NOT MOVED (Would have inserted a new clause re the claimant commitment)
New Clause
After clause 6 insert -
'Provision of Claimant Documentation
6B. Regulations must provide, if a claimant is unable to provide documentation required to process a claim, for the information to be provided by prescribed third parties to enable the claim to be processed.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly

DUP – “As most of us know, from dealing with benefit claimants through our constituency offices, third-party verification is accepted under current claims and payment regulations. As we also know, this is being transferred over to universal credit claims and payment regulations, and it will allow for third-party verification to continue as it is at present. Mr Speaker, this is just one example of an amendment in group 1 that is not required.”

It appears the SDLP did not move this amendment in response to what the Minister said in relation to it.

Amendment 8 - NOT MOVED
New Clause
After clause 12 insert -
‘Frequency of payment
12A. Universal credit shall be paid twice monthly unless a single claimant or the members of a couple jointly opt, in making a claim, to be paid on a monthly basis.’

Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Robin Swann
Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood

DUP - “The current Minister went one step further last October by proposing that the default position be twice-monthly. This is just one of the many amendments that should be dealt with in regulations rather than through amendments to the Bill.”

This amendment was not moved following the Minister’s response.

Amendment 9 – FAILED (Petition of Concern)
Clause 14, Page 6, Line 32
At end insert -
‘(a) in preparing, reviewing and updating a claimant commitment under subsection (2) the Department shall have due regard for the claimant’s skills, experience, caring responsibilities and physical and mental ill health.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

UUP – “In regard to amendment No 9, it makes sense on a practical level, so much so that I would be surprised if the Department did not already propose having due regard for them.”

SDLP –“Amendment No 9 relates to preparing claimant commitments and states that the Department must have due regard for the claimant's skills, experience, caring responsibilities and physical and mental ill health.”

Amendment 10 - NOT MOVED
Clause 16, Page 7, Line 35
Leave out ‘approved by the Department’ and insert ‘employed by a HSC Trust or who is a general practitioner’

Mr Steven Agnew

UUP – “Mr Agnew's amendments, Nos 10, 37 and 57, are, no doubt, well intentioned, but, unfortunately, I believe they also undermine themselves”

Amendment 11 - NOT MOVED
Clause 16, Page 7, Line 41
At end insert -
‘(c) any decision taken under subsection (5) shall take account of relevant medical evidence including evidence of mental ill health.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

The SDLP explained why they introduced this amendment by stating “I heard what others said about how that is currently the case, but, given the track record of Atos in particular, it is very clear to me in my constituency work and representational role that quite a bit of evidence is set aside”

Amendment 12 – FAILED (Petition of Concern)
Clause 24, Page 12, Line 3
Leave out ‘—’ and insert ‘or an incident motivated by hate—’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

UUP – “At face value, the Ulster Unionist Party agrees with amendment Nos 12 and 13. People subjected to domestic violence have rightly been given additional protection in the Bill, and now we are being asked to expand that to incidents motivated by hate.”

Explaining the amendment and addressing the Petition of Concern it faced the SDLP stated – “I also ask that this amendment not be subject to a petition of concern. I think that that would be a very good statement from the House about our commitment to those people who suffer from such attacks. I remind Members that a person who comes forward to the police for help or to make a complaint will usually have suffered a minimum of 35 incidents of attack or assault.”

Amendment 13 – FAILED (Consequential to 12)
Clause 24, Page 12, Line 15
At end insert -
‘(9) For the purposes of subsection (7) —
      (a)  an ‘incident motivated by hate’ has such meaning as may be prescribed;
      (b)  a ‘victim of an incident motivated by hate’ means a person on or against whom an incident motivated by hate is inflicted or threatened (and regulations under subsection (7) may prescribe circumstances in which a person is to be treated as being or not being a victim of a serious incident motivated by hate)’;
      (c)  a person has recently been a victim of an incident motivated by hate if a prescribed period has not expired since the incident was inflicted or threatened.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

Amendment 17 - NOT MOVED
New Clause
After clause 37 insert -
‘The Independent Living Fund
37A. The Department shall bring forward within 18 months of commencement of this Act a fund to replace the Independent Living Fund, following consultation with the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

This amendment asks the Department to bring in a replacement to the independent living fund within 18 months of the Bill's commencement.

UUP – “On amendment No 17, I first ask for clarification from Mr Ramsey, perhaps later on, who I thought had been previously assured by the Health Minister that the independent living fund in Northern Ireland was going to be retained in some form after June 2015. If that is the case, I welcome it as it would allow some 600 disabled people here who are receiving support from it to continue to lead their own independent lives in the community. However, given the almost inevitable ending of the scheme across the water later this year, I understand that ours, even if it was retained, would probably undergo some reform. If we decide that it should be for the Social Development Minister supported by DEL and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, it is better to give them the 18-month time frame, as stated in the amendment. If, however, this amendment has been tabled without the knowledge of the Health Department, the Department for Social Development or DEL, I have to question whether it really was the most appropriate time to make the proposal, not least because I suspect that its' more natural home would be in the Health Department. Again, I will listen to the contribution of others on this issue.”

Amendment 18 - NOT MOVED
Clause 38, Page 17, Line 29
At end insert -
‘and any such assessment must take account of relevant medical evidence.’

Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Robin Swann

Explaining this amendment Roy Beggs stated “Our amendment No 18 would ensure that any assessment of a person's capability for work or work-related activity would take relevant medical evidence into account. Whilst the issue of medical evidence has been settled for personal independence payment (PIP), no such understanding has been found for the transition to universal credit.”

Amendment 19 - NOT MOVED
Clause 38, Page 17, Line 29
At end insert -
‘and any such assessment shall take account of relevant medical evidence including evidence of mental ill health.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

Amendment No 19 dealt with evidence of mental ill health.

Amendment 35 - PASSED
Clause 79, Page 60, Line 27
At end insert ‘(2A) Any person determining a question mentioned in subsection (1) or (2) shall take account of relevant medical evidence.’

Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Robin Swann

DUP – “I am happy to support amendment No 35 and the opposition to clause 129 standing part, but I will not be supporting any other amendments in group 1.”

Amendment 36 – NOT MOVED
Clause 79, Page 60, Line 27
At end insert -
‘(2A) Any person determining a question mentioned in subsection (1) or (2) must take account of relevant medical evidence including evidence of mental ill health.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

Amendment 37- NOT MOVED
Clause 79, Page 60, Line 31
At end insert -
      ‘( )  must provide that a person carrying out an assessment under paragraph (a) or determining a question under subsection (1) or (2) shall be a health care professional employed by a HSC Trust or a general practitioner;’

Mr Steven Agnew

Amendment 38 – NOT MOVED
Clause 80, Page 61, Line 19
Leave out ‘9 months’ and insert ‘6 months’

Mr Steven Agnew

UUP – “I turn to amendment Nos 38 and 39 from Mr Agnew, who moved the debate into something new. He is proposing changing the prospective test and the length of time for which the personal independence payment claims are likely to continue in the future to meet disability conditions from nine months to six months. We must be conscious that it would be a fairly fundamental breach of parity if we were to accept this, and there is grave uncertainty about what the cost would be.”

Amendment 39 – FAILED (consequential to 38)
Clause 80, Page 61, Line 33
Leave out ‘“the next 9 months” means the 9 months’ and insert ‘“the next 6 months” means the 6 months’

Mr Steven Agnew

Opposition to Clause 99 – NOT MOVED (Committee opposition removed due to Stormont House Agreement)
The Chairperson of the Committee listed below give notice of their intention to oppose the question that clause 99 stand part of the Bill.

Chair, Committee for Social Development

Committee position (Alex Maskey) – “The Committee agreed yesterday that, given the time that has elapsed since the publication of its report and, more importantly, the fact that we have the five-party Stormont House Agreement, which has addressed many of the concerns relating to welfare reform, the Committee is content that it is for individual members to consider their position in relation to the Committee’s opposition to clauses, referred to in the Marshalled List of amendments”

Amendment 43 – NOT MOVED
New Clause
After clause 100 insert -
‘Payment of awards in cash
100A. The Department shall ensure that a claimant under this Act who has no access to a bank account shall have access to any relevant award in cash.’

Mr Steven Agnew

UUP – “I turn to amendment No 43, which proposes ensuring that the Department will issue entitlements in cash in cases where the claimant has no access to a bank account. I have concerns about this, as I believe that, in such cases, the priority of the Department and the advice agencies should continue to be to encourage the claimant to open an account, whether that is through a Post Office card or, indeed, a bank account”

Amendment 44 – NOT MOVED
New Clause
After clause 101 insert -
‘Payments pending appeal
101A. In Section 5(1) of the Social Security Administration Act (NI) 1992 (regulations about claims and payments) after paragraph (r) insert⁠—
   “(s) for the making of a payment pending appeal”.’

Mr Steven Agnew

UUP - “We will oppose amendment No 44, which proposes to allow for payments in cases that are pending appeal. Were the amendment to go through, it would set quite a dangerous precedent and would also entail cost to the Executive. I have not heard any explanation as to why that additional cost should be borne.”

Amendment 45 – NOT MOVED
Clause 103, Page 71, Line 30
At end insert -
 ‘(8) Subsection (1) does not apply unless it is determined that, whether fraudulently or otherwise, the claimant has misrepresented, or failed to disclose, any material fact.’

 Mr Steven Agnew

UUP – “We will oppose amendment No 45. I understand that the proposer is coming at it from the angle of a claimant who has been at the receiving end of a departmental error. While fraud is deliberate, error is not. Unfortunately, it is probably inevitable that, given the scale of our welfare system, mistakes are sometimes made, maybe still too often. Yes, that is the case, but that is the reality.”

Opposition to Clause 129 - AGREED
The Minister for Social Development gives notice of his intention to oppose the question that clause 129 stand part of the Bill.

Minister for Social Development

UUP – “I note the Minister's opposition to clause 129. I believe that last year's National Insurance Contributions Act has already restored what was being proposed. So, we, too, believe that the clause is unnecessary.”

Amendment 53 – FAILED (Petition of Concern)
New Clause
Page 94, after line 19 insert -
‘Impact of Regulations on Victims and Survivors
130C. The Department must ensure that regulations under this Act are prepared with due regard for the impact on victims and survivors of the past in consultation with the Northern Ireland Commission for Victims and Survivors.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

UUP – “Amendment No 53 from the SDLP is sensible, and the Ulster Unionist Party will be happy to support it.”

Amendment 57 – NOT MOVED
Clause 132, Page 94, Line 28
At end insert -
‘“general practitioner” means a medical practitioner providing primary medical services;
“HSC Trust” means a Health and Social Care trust established under Article 10 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 (NI 1);’

Mr Steven Agnew

Amendment 74 - NOT MOVED
Schedule 1, Page 98, Line 32
Leave out paragraph 6

Mr Steven Agnew

UUP – “I have to say that vouchers may play a role, as they could assist someone who has an addiction. At this stage, we have not heard any compelling argument either politically or in public which makes us believe that this clause deserves to be taken out. Surely that option should remain. If it is enacted and used in regulations, it is an area that needs to be carefully monitored and reviewed. At this stage, we are minded to oppose the amendment from the Member because we recognise that potentially this may have merits.”

Group 2 - Entitlements

This group of amendments and oppositions to clauses apply to those within the Welfare Reform Bill that judge who is entitled to social security benefits and what those benefits will look like and amount to. This group included Clause 69 titled ‘Housing benefit: determination of appropriate maximum’, otherwise known as the controversial 'bedroom tax'; the £26,000 benefit cap; the statutory right to independent advice services for those who would be adversely affected by welfare reform changes; and maintaining housing benefit for four weeks after securing employment.

Most of the debate centred on the general principles of welfare reform, the bedroom tax and what the additional ‘top up fund’ of £70 million could and would be spent on under proposals. Generally, the SDLP opposed the extension of the bedroom tax and criticised Sinn Fein for only introducing proposals that mitigated against the impact of it as opposed to signing a petition of concern that the SDLP tabled. All parties agreed on the importance of independent advice services but the DUP argued that if a statutory requirement was introduced, more money and resources would be spent on the bureaucracy of ensuring that this was upheld, as opposed to money going straight to the independent advice services. The Alliance Party echoed this call and asked that the Minister ensure that, in lieu of this statutory duty, advice services have the funding needed to achieve the outcomes the people of NI were entitled to.

Steven Agnew’s Amendment 7, which would have allowed payments to continue for four weeks after the claimant had gained employment in recognition that many jobs are paid monthly, failed. The UUP failed to prioritise spending the ‘top up fund’ on it and the DUP believed that it would be paying people money who did not need it as they were more likely to have a better paid job than what they were receiving in welfare payments. Steven Agnew MLA and the SDLP argued that not having a four week safety net for individuals would act as a disincentive to people seeking work which was contrary to the principles of universal credit – making work pay.

Amendment 2 – FAILED (not moved)
Reducing proscribed waiting period from 7 to 3 days.

Clause 6, Page 3, Line 28
Leave out ‘7’ and insert ‘3’

 Mrs Dolores Kelly
 Mr Alex Attwood
 Mr Alban Maginness
 Mr Pat Ramsey

The SDLP believed that seven days was too long to wait for benefit payments, the UUP were not convinced of the merits of such a change and that although some people may be adversely affected, and the administrative burden would be so large that it would not be cost effective for the Assembly. The DUP agreed with the UUP.

Amendment 5 - FAILED (not moved)
Re calculations of awards for children and young people: 
Maintaining the current system that exists under tax credits in which the disabled child element of benefits equates to two thirds of the severely disabled child element.
Clause 10, Page 4, Line 36
At end insert -
 ‘(2A) Where an additional amount under subsection (2) can be awarded at two different rates, the lower rate shall be no less than two thirds of the higher rate.’

 Mr Steven Agnew

The SDLP agreed with Steven Agnew and argued that this was needed in order to protect the most vulnerable. The UUP were concerned that although moving from a three tier system to a two tier system may adversely affect some parents of disabled children, there was transitional support available through universal credit, especially for families with severely disabled children. The UUP recognised that through additional money available through universal credit, 6000 children would benefit whilst 7500 would be likely to receive less. They did not support the amendment due to a lack of clarity and the unknown costs associated.

Amendment 6 - FAILED (not moved)
Would have stopped changes taking place for new claimants for 52 weeks if the reduction in their calculation was based on age: 

Clause 11, Page 5, Line 25
At end insert -
 ‘(4A) Regulations under subsection (4) shall provide that any calculation involving a reduction based on the age of the claimant shall not take effect for a period of 52 weeks in respect of any new claimant.’

 Mr Steven Agnew

Steven Agnew argued that this would allow young people enough time to transition to new age-based rates and to protect the most vulnerable. However the UUP opposed the amendment on the grounds that contribution to rent is inappropriate when the individual can afford it.

Amendment 7 - FAILED (not moved)
Would have allowed payments to continue for four weeks after the claimant had gained employment

Clause 11, Page 5, Line 31
At end insert -
 ‘(iii)  to continue for a period of four weeks after a claimant is employed.’

 Mr Steven Agnew

This amendment invoked substantial debate and called into question the guiding principles of the welfare reform agenda, ‘making work pay’. Steven Agnew argued that in not introducing it, the loss of housing benefit and the possibility of rent arrears and a month with no money before their first payday may act as a genuine disincentive for many people. This, he argued, was contrary to the guiding ‘making work pay’ principles of welfare reform. Money could be paid for this from the £70million top up fund. The UUP did not agree with the amendment, argued that the top up fund was already oversubscribed and the party were not prepared to see money taken from the health budget.

Amendment 27 - FAILED (not moved)
Removing the time-limiting aspect for ESA youth claimants 

Clause 52, Page 39
Leave out lines 7 to 12

 Mr Steven Agnew
 Mrs Dolores Kelly
 Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness

The SDLP argued that the Bill needed to protect young people and contribution-based ESA should be afforded to young people as well as to adults to ensure protection for them and their households. The SDLP noted with concern that they had been advised by the department that there would be an amendment included to offer protection which had not been included. The DUP did not agree and argued that there was no reason young people should be treated differently than older people. They added that it was crucial that young people were not getting into a culture of benefits from an early age and welfare reform proposals would help to counter generational unemployment.

Amendment 28 - FAILED (not moved)
ESA to youth claimants 

Clause 54, Page 40, Line 19
At end insert -
  ‘unless the claimant had made contributions before the commencement of this Act’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

The SDLP argued that the Department claimed that this was unnecessary but the intention was to find a workable solution to protect sick young persons. The UUP argued that there needed to be a more affordable proposal although the party understood there was a wider issue of fairness as no other contributory benefit forfeits its criteria based on the age of claimants.

Amendment 29 - FAILED (not moved)
Limited capacity for work as part of the criterion for ESA
New Clause

After clause 54 insert -
‘Condition relating to youth
54A. In paragraph 4 of Schedule 1 to the Welfare Reform Act 2007 (condition relating to youth) after sub-paragraph (1)(d) insert

 “(e)  after the assessment phase has ended, the claimant has limited capacity for work-related activity”.’

 Mr Steven Agnew

The UUP disagreed with this amendment as the party required clarification as limited capability for work was already a key criterion for ESA.

Amendment 42 – FAILED (Petition of Concern)
The Benefit Cap 

 Clause 95, Page 66, Line 30
 At end insert -
 ‘(5) Notwithstanding subsections (1) and (4) the benefit cap shall not be applied to child benefit or to any benefits a claimant receives for caring responsibilities, carer’s allowance or additional amounts received within Universal Credit for claimants with regular and substantial caring responsibilities under section 10 or section 12.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

This was one of the most hotly debated amendments in the Assembly debate. The SDLP were concerned that although the benefit cap was currently £26,000, the Conservative Party had committed to reducing it to £23,000 if re-elected. At that level the cap would affect around 600 families in Northern Ireland, many of whom were providing home care for severely disabled children. The UUP argued that there was very little power the Assembly had over the benefit cap that it wasn’t prepared to subsidise out of the block grant as it was a key DWP policy, one that the UUP had wholly supported. The DUP argued that welfare reform must make work pay, and the removal of child benefit and carers allowance from the cap would ensure that those with a ‘genuine need and genuine disability…in very specific and controlled circumstances’ would not suffer.

Amendment 48 – FAILED (Not moved) (looked at with Amendment 50 – also concerning independent advice services)
UUP amendment for the statutory right to independent advice
New Clause

Page 90, after line 23 insert -
‘Duty to ensure access to advice
Duty to ensure access to advice
120B. It is the duty of the Department to ensure that all claimants have access to independent advice in relation to making a claim under this Act.’

Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Robin Swann

Amendment 50 – FAILED (not moved)
Duty to ensure access to independent advice 

New Clause
After clause 120 insert -
‘Duty to ensure access to independent advice
120D.—(1) The Department shall ensure that any person making a claim under this Act shall be entitled to have access to independent confidential advice and assistance provided free of charge in relation to making a claim under this Act.
(2) For the purposes of section (120) the Department must bring forward guidance on the independent confidential advice and assistance which is to be provided in consultation with the Northern Ireland Advice Services Consortium, within 3 months of the commencement of this section.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

The SDLP believes that there has to be strong, impartial and independent advice that puts the needs of the service user to the forefront. The party had concerns that those providing advice in SSA officers were under pressure to reduce the number of people on benefits which would have an adverse effect on those in need. Alex Atwood pointed out that this is not without precedence as in 2010, the Assembly put in place the statutory right to advice for people in situations where they were at risk of homelessness and in PACE law, every citizen is entitled to legal advice in the event of an arrest. The SDLP argued that it was in the best interest of the government to offer this advice as it would reduce the risk of a negative assessment, avoid going to an appeal, and improve the quality and experience of the life of the claimant and their family. The SDLP were ultimately arguing for the Assembly to maximise the journey to the right outcome, and that for every £1 invested in welfare advice, there was £8.80 in potential savings to the state.

The UUP argued that the importance of independent advice services would not undermine the work of the SSA and would also not automatically mean more money for the claimant. The UUP added that there needed to be a requirement that the Department monitored what was being done to ensure that support was being delivered on a wide range of subjects.

The DUP argued against the amendments, citing that there would always be administrative cost burdens when something was given a statutory footing and that a significant amount of bureaucracy builds around it. They argued that it was better that money was spent on frontline advice services as opposed making sure that the statutory duty was being met.

Roy Beggs (UUP): am aware that amendment No 48, from the Ulster Unionist Party, has generated quite a bit of interest, not least in the independent advice sector. Let me make it clear that I understand that the Department, on the whole, provides support to the independent advice sector. However, that is because it is absolutely essential that it does. Without independent advice, fewer people would be claiming their fair entitlement. More people would be submitting inaccurate or erroneous claims. Many might be unable to claim their entitlement, and, quite possibly, there would be gridlock in the system and severe hardship for many.

Sammy Wilson (DUP): The Department already spends a considerable amount of money on institutions that give advice, but I still maintain that, once you make something statutory, a whole industry grows around ensuring that it is in place, monitoring it, measuring it, ensuring the right quality and everything else. I believe in the independent way that it is done at present, but, once you make it statutory and the money comes from the Department, the real danger is that it is no longer seen as independent but as an extension of the Department. At least the advice that we have at the moment is seen as independent from the Department, albeit the money comes from the Department. However, since it is not a statutory obligation, there is no statutory link between the organisations that give advice and the Department, and they are seen as being more independent. For that reason, it is not a case of killing the amendment but simply using common sense. We have to give advice, but let us keep it that the money goes to organisations that give advice and not to setting up a new bureaucracy. 

Alex Atwood (SDLP): When I was the Minister for Social Development, the then Minister for Employment and Learning, Lord Empey, and I had a meeting with Chris Grayling, who is now the Justice Secretary in London but was then a junior Minister in DWP. From what I understand, Mr Grayling is one of the more dogmatic of the Tory high command. He had a conversation with us that should echo in the ears of everybody in the Chamber when it comes to the bedroom tax. The conversation went like this: he said that, because of the recession, it was inevitable that people were losing their houses. People who had a big mortgage and lost their job had to give up their house. He said — this is nearly a quotation — that it was not fair that somebody living next door in a house of the same size and getting housing support should be allowed to live there, if the other person had lost their home. Think about that: because somebody suffers difficulty to the point of losing their home, the person next door should lose their home as well. I remember saying to him that, in my view, that indicated false values and a false approach to dealing with people in housing need or maintaining them in their accommodation. To be fair and accurate, he looked somewhat crestfallen and embarrassed, because in that moment the mask had slipped and the dogma of London on the bedroom tax was clear for all to see. It is not about what they claim it is about; at its heart, it is that they will penalise the social tenant because the private tenant falls on hard times.

Amendment 51 – PASSED
Discretionary Support
New Clause

After clause 130 insert -
‘Discretionary support
130A.—(1) The Department may, in accordance with regulations under this section

      (a)  make payments by way of grant or loan to prescribed persons;
      (b)  provide, or arrange for the provision of, goods or services to prescribed persons.
(2) Anything done under subsection (1)(a) or (b) is referred to in this section as the provision of discretionary support.
(3) Regulations may make provision—
  (a) for the Department to provide discretionary support only in prescribed circumstances;
      (b)  conferring a discretion on the Department (subject to any provision made by virtue of paragraph (c) or (d))

       (i) as to whether or not to provide discretionary support in a particular case; and
      (ii)  as to the nature of the discretionary support and (in the case of support by way of payments) as to the amount of the payments and the period for or in respect of which they are made;
      (c)  imposing a limit on the amount of the discretionary support that the Department may make in any particular case;
      (d)  restricting the period for or in respect of which the Department may provide discretionary support in any particular case;
      (e)  for claims for discretionary support to be made in the prescribed form and manner and for the procedure to be followed in dealing with and disposing of such claims;
       (f)  imposing conditions on persons claiming or receiving discretionary support requiring them to provide to the Department such information as may be prescribed
      (g)  for the disclosure of information relating to discretionary support in prescribed circumstances or to prescribed persons;
      (h)  authorising the Department in prescribed circumstances to recover by prescribed means discretionary payments made under this section;
      (i)  requiring or authorising reviews (whether by the Department or a prescribed person) of decisions made by the Department with respect to the provision of discretionary support or the recovery of payments made under this section;
      (j)  for such other matters as appear to the Department to be necessary or expedient in connection with the provision of discretionary support, including provision creating criminal offences and provision amending or applying (with or without modification) any statutory provision.
(4) In this section “prescribed” means prescribed by, or determined in accordance with, regulations under this section.
(5) Discretionary support is not to be regarded as a social security benefit; but regulations under this section may provide for any statutory provision relating to a social security benefit (or to such benefits generally) to apply with prescribed modifications to discretionary support.
(6) Regulations shall not be made under this section unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, the Assembly.
(7) The Department shall, in respect of each financial year, prepare and lay before the Assembly a report on the operation of regulations made under this section.’

Minister for Social Development

The UUP welcomed this amendment and that it was essential that the new scheme works effectively and efficiently so that those who need it can avail of such services. Sinn Fein argued that as the social fund had been abolished in Britain and had gone to local authorities, there had been an unequal distribution of funds. They argued that it was positive that NI had a discretionary fund and a discretionary fund Commissioner to ensure that claimant’s cases were fairly treated. Sinn Fein stated that there were £90,000 working poor in the North that would benefit from this discretionary fund.

Amendment 52 – PASSED
Discretionary Support Commissioner
New Clause

After clause 130 insert -
‘Discretionary support Commissioner
130B.—(1) There shall be an officer known as “the discretionary support Commissioner”.
(2) The discretionary support Commissioner shall be appointed by the Department on such terms and conditions as the Department may determine.
(3) The discretionary support Commissioner

      (a)  shall appoint such discretionary support inspectors; and
      (b)  may appoint such staff for the Commissioner and for discretionary support inspectors,
as the Commissioner thinks fit but with the consent of the Department.
(4) Appointments under subsection (3) shall be made from persons made available to the Commissioner by the Department.
(5) Discretionary support inspectors have such functions as are conferred or imposed on them

      (a)  by regulations under section 130A, or
      (b)  by any other statutory provision,
in relation to the review of decisions of the Department.
(6) It shall be the duty of the discretionary support Commissioner

      (a)  to monitor the quality of decisions of discretionary support inspectors and give them such advice and assistance as the Commissioner thinks fit to improve the standard of their decisions;
      (b)  to arrange such training of discretionary support inspectors as the Commissioner considers necessary;
      (c)  to carry out such other functions in connection with the work of discretionary support inspectors as the Department may require;
      (d)  to report annually in writing to the Department on the standards of reviews by discretionary support inspectors.
(7) The Department shall publish any report made under subsection (6)(d).
(8) In Part 1 of Schedule 4 to the Administration Act after the entries under the heading “The social fund” there is inserted 

“Discretionary support officers
The discretionary support Commissioner.
A discretionary support inspector.
A member of any staff appointed under section 130B(3)(b) of the  Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.”
(9) In the Freedom of Information Act 2000, in Part 7 of Schedule 1 after the entry relating to the social fund Commissioner there is inserted 

“The discretionary support Commissioner appointed under section 130B of the Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2015.”.’

Minister for Social Development

Amendment 73 –FAILED (not moved)
Schedule 1, Page 98, Line 5
Leave out sub-paragraph (4)

Mr Steven Agnew

The UUP opposed the Amendment seeking to redefine the earned income of the self-employed, as it would take away an incentive for the self-employed to try to increase their paid income. The UUP did see why there may be concerns about setting a minimum income floor but there was a need for pragmatism.

Amendment 75 – FAILED (not moved)
Schedule 1, page 99, line 5
Leave out paragraph 7

Mr Steven Agnew

The UUP argued that this was an issue that had been debated since the inception of the Welfare Reform Bill and that the Assembly was not seeking a licence to discriminate against EU migrants. The party were aware of criticism that some EU workers would be subject to work-related tests whereas British nationals in the same situations would not. However, social security provision was already different for EU workers as for British nationals and therefore entitlement was often based on claimants undertaking a habitual residency test. The party were also concerned that not upholding this would make NI different from the rest of the UK in the eyes of EU nationals and would therefore increase immigration.

Group 3 - Sanctions and penalties

Under the Welfare Reform Bill, working-age benefit and Universal Credit claimants, who, with no good reason,

  • fail to undertake work placements;
  • fail to apply for a particular vacancy;
  • fail to take up an offer of work; or,
  • lose a job through misconduct or out of personal choice,

can be sanctioned by a reduction or loss of benefits (amount to be defined in regulations).

Regulations can also provide the length of time that a sanction can apply to a claimant, with the Minister outlining “three months for a first failure, six months for a second and 18 months for the third and subsequent failures only”. The clause as drafted (and as in GB) set out to limit this to a maximum of 3 years. A number of organisations had expressed concern to the Committee for Social Development about the length of a 3-year sanction on claimants, particularly lone parents and people with disabilities. Reference was made to the Oakley report, which gave recommendations on how the DWP needed to improve communication and public understanding of the sanctioning system.

The Minister’s amendments set the maximum length of sanction to 18 months (1½ years). The amendments were passed by the Assembly. Steven Agnew (Green Party) had submitted amendments to reduce the limit to 26 weeks (½ year). These did not pass, being mutually exclusive with the 18 month change.

The SDLP’s amendment sought allow claimants at least 15 days in which to provide a good reason for failures so as to avoid a sanction, though the Minister assured that the guidance would be flexible to a claimant’s particular circumstances. The vote was subject to a valid DUP Petition of Concern and did not pass (SDLP, Steven Agnew and Jim Allister voted in favour; Alliance, DUP, UUP and Sinn Féin voted against).

Clause 111 would have reduced the time in which a claimant could withdraw agreement to pay an administrative penalty (offered as an alternative to prosecution for benefit fraud) from a 28-day to a 14-day “cooling-off” period. Clause 112 aimed to introduce a civil penalty to claimants who unintentionally make incorrect statements fail to report a change in circumstances, therefore resulting in an overpayment on their claim. In both cases, the Assembly supported the Minister’s proposal that these clauses should be removed from the Bill.

The key parts of the debate in sound bites…

Minister Storey: I want to make this point because it is something that I have heard others say about the Bill: I do not think that any of us would want to bring this Bill, as it was in its entirety, to the House. If we had the freedom to bring our own Bill in the way that we believe completely reflects the needs of citizens in Northern Ireland, and if I were in government where it was the decision of one party, I have no doubt that the Bill would be different. It would have a different emphasis and focus.
[...] The point I have been trying to make is that we still need to have tough, but fair, sanctions. That is what we need to try and reflect. The sanctions are still there, even though there has been an issue about moving from three years to 18 months. I think that that is the rationale that has been applied to try to get an agreed position that is not seen as being heavy-handed, but equally cannot be interpreted as a free-for-all with no penalties, and that you can do as you wish and no sanctions will follow.

Mr Alex Attwood (SDLP): Paul Farmer, the chief executive of the mental health charity Mind said that sanctions among those on employment support allowance had risen from 1,700 a month to 4,800 a month, adding that there had been a disproportional impact on people with mental health problems. Chris Mould, the chair of the Trussell Trust, said that there had been a radical change in the way very disproportionate decisions were being taken since the latter part of 2012, adding that it was clear that some job centres were being more punitive than others. He said that, in too many cases, it takes too long for claimants to secure redress if they have had their benefit withdrawn.

Mr Steven Agnew (Green Party): I go back to the intention of the Tory Government and, even with the Minister's amendment, what we are proposing to replicate here. They made it clear from the outset that their intention was to cut the welfare bill by £18 billion. The Minister was asked for evidence. Why this level of sanctions? Where is the evidence that this level of sanctions is the right one? I have no doubt that the evidence would show that this level of sanctions will save money through not paying out benefits, but I have not seen the evidence that it will mean more people getting into work. That is where my concern lies.

Mr Basil McCrea (NI21): Oakley, in July 2014, noted the problems and the lack of resources to fully explain sanctions in general and when someone was facing sanctions to their benefits. The problems with the IT resources represented a significant hurdle. They stopped people from getting the benefits that they were due. He pointed to a general lack of understanding around sanctions, both among people who had not noticed being sanctioned — so there is not much of a deterrent there if you do not notice — and those who felt they had been sanctioned when, in fact, their benefits had been changed because of a change in circumstances. In other words, nobody really understood what the sanctions network was doing.

Summary of Amendments

Amendment 14 - PASSED
Clause 26, Page 13, Line 13
Leave out ‘3 years’ and insert ‘18 months’

Minister for Social Development

Amendment 15 – FAILED (Mutually exclusive to 14)
Clause 26, Page 13, Line 13
Leave out ‘3 years’ and insert ‘26 weeks’

Mr Steven Agnew

Opposition to Clause 26 - FAILED (Committee opposition removed due to Stormont House Agreement)
The Chairperson of the Committee listed below give notice of their intention to oppose the question that clause 26 stand part of the Bill.

Chair, Committee for Social Development

Amendment 16 – FAILED (Petition of Concern)
Clause 27, Page 14, Line 20
At end insert –
‘(10) A claimant shall be provided with at least fifteen days to provide a good reason under any such requirement in this section.’

 Mrs Dolores Kelly
 Mr Alex Attwood
 Mr Alban Maginness
 Mr Pat Ramsey

Amendment 23 – PASSED 
Clause 47, Page 25, Line 29
Leave out ‘3 years’ and insert ‘18 months’

Minister for Social Development

Amendment 24 – FAILED (exclusive with 23)
Clause 47, Page 25, Line 29
Leave out ‘3 years’ and insert ‘26 weeks’

Mr Steven Agnew

Amendment 25 - PASSED
Clause 50, Page 35, Line 14
Leave out ‘3 years’ and insert ‘18 months’

Minister for Social Development

Amendment 26 – FAILED (exclusive with 23)
Clause 50, Page 35, Line 14
Leave out ‘3 years’ and insert ‘26 weeks’

Mr Steven Agnew

Group 4 - Reports, reviews, pilot schemes and information sharing

All of the amendments from the Social Development Minister were passed. The Assembly also agreed two amendments introduced by Rog Beggs MLA, one of which creates a pilot scheme for the new PIP arrangements. The SDLP has a similar amendment which they withdrew because the UUP one was being supported.  The other successful amendment from UUP means that relevant medical evidence will now form part of work capability assessments.

An SDLP amendment calling for an enhanced scrutiny role for the Northern Ireland Joint Standards Committee for the Social Security Agency and Child Maintenance Service was also withdrawn by the party because Minister Storey committed to look into this area further, and the SDLP decided there might be an opportunity for the Minister to accept an amendment on this at Further Consideration Stage.

The key parts of the debate in sound bites…

Mr Alex Attwood (SDLP)Obviously, I will not rehearse the narrative that we outlined earlier about the scale of what is proposed, the risks of what might happen, the experience of Britain with the roll-out of the implementation of universal credit in the event that that happens in Northern Ireland and all the evidence that has gone to the Select Committee….. We want to gear up the oversight and interrogation of what is happening with welfare reform and its operation in Northern Ireland in a way that guarantees, as best we can, that issues are identified, problems are rectified and the House is fully informed.

Minister Storey…as part of the five-party Stormont Castle agreement, we agreed that there was a need for greater clarity on the implications of further spending on social security in Northern Ireland following the introduction of the welfare spending cap by the Chancellor; and that we have agreed that, working in partnership with the Minister of Finance and Personnel — this covers the point that the Member makes in relation to the wording of the amendment — I would propose a commission to review the operation of the welfare cap?

Mr Roy Beggs (UUP): I am pleased to propose amendment No 34, which requires the Department to carry out a pilot scheme into personal independence payments; something that will be a first for any region in the United Kingdom. Hopefully, lessons can be learned before any wider roll-out. I am glad that this amendment appears to have had widespread support from a number of Members already. I think that there is a lot of logic to it.

Mrs Dolores Kelly (SDLP):  It is very clear that the Scottish Executive recognise that there are a number of inequalities that are a consequence of welfare reform per se. That Committee has already gathered substantial evidence on the differential impact of welfare reform on women.

Summary of Amendments

Amendment 20 - NOT MOVED
Clause 42, Page 20, Line 16
At end insert -
‘(7) Within six months of a pilot scheme being initiated under section 41 of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 the Department shall bring forward a similar pilot scheme in Northern Ireland under this section.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

Amendment 34 – PASSED
New Clause
After clause 76 insert -
‘Pilot scheme
76A. The Department shall arrange for the operation of at least one pilot scheme in relation to this Part for the purposes of testing the effectiveness of arrangements for making personal independence payments and the outcomes for claimants.’

Mr Roy Beggs
Mr Robin Swann

Amendment 46 - PASSED
Clause 117, Page 88, Line 9
At end insert -
‘( )  the Department of Justice;’

Minister for Social Development

Amendment 47 - PASSED
New Clause
After clause 120 insert -
‘Reports by Department
120A. In Article 76 of the Social Security (Northern Ireland) Order 1998 (reports by Department) for paragraph (1) substitute —
“(1) The Department shall prepare, either annually or at such times or intervals as may be prescribed, a report on —
      (a)  the standards achieved by the Department in the making of decisions against which an appeal lies to an appeal tribunal constituted under Chapter 1 of Part 2; and
      (b)  the operation of sanctions.
(1A) For the purposes of paragraph (1)(b) a sanction is —
      (a)  the reduction in the amount of an award of universal credit, a jobseeker’s allowance, income support or an employment and support allowance on account of a failure by a person to comply with any requirement or any other conduct of a person;
      (b)  the loss of, or reduction in the amount of, any sanctionable benefit under the Social Security Fraud Act (Northern Ireland) 2001.
(1B) A report under paragraph (1)(b) must contain details of —
      (a)  the number of persons affected by sanctions;
      (b)  the periods for which such persons are affected;
      (c)  the reasons for which sanctions are imposed;
      (d)  the benefits or allowances which are reduced or lost.”.’

Minister for Social Development

Amendment 49 – NOT MOVED
New Clause
After clause 120 insert -
‘Review of the Welfare Reform Act
120C.—(1) The Department must —
      (a)  not later than 3 years after the commencement of this Act, and
      (b)  at least once in every period of 5 years thereafter,
publish an independent report on the operation and effectiveness of this Act and any regulations made under its provisions.
(2) Without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1), any report produced under that subsection shall include —
      (a)  an assessment of the impact of the Act on —
       (i)  the number of people with a disability living in poverty;
      (ii)  the number of children living in poverty;
     (iii)  the financial impact on woman claimants;
and
      (b)  recommendations for legislative change to remedy any negative impact of the Act on any of the categories of person listed in section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
(3) The Department shall lay before the Assembly as soon as is reasonably practical after publication any report produced under subsection (1) and shall propose a debate on the report in the Assembly not less than one week and no more than six weeks after the report is laid.’

Mr Steven Agnew

Amendment 54 – FAILED (Petition of Concern)
New Clause
Page 94, after line 19 insert -
‘Annual Report by Department
130D. The Department shall be required to table a report in the Assembly on the implementation of this Act as it affects welfare provision in Northern Ireland and on the financial arrangements governing and applicable to welfare expenditure in Northern Ireland within six months of the commencement of this Act and on an annual basis thereafter.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

Amendment 55 - FAILED (Petition of Concern)
New Clause
Page 94, after line 19 insert -
‘Welfare Reform Committee
130E. There shall be established a committee of the Assembly which shall monitor the implementation of this Act as it affects welfare provision in Northern Ireland and to consider relevant Northern Ireland legislation and other consequential arrangements.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

Amendment 56 – NOT MOVED
New Clause
Page 94, after line 19 insert -
‘Review
130F. The Northern Ireland Joint Standards Committee for the Social Security Agency and Child Maintenance Service shall monitor the standards and quality of decision making with regards to the sanctions defined under this Act and report to the Social Security Agency and Child Maintenance Service on an annual basis.’

Mrs Dolores Kelly
Mr Alex Attwood
Mr Alban Maginness
Mr Pat Ramsey

bob.harper@nicva.org's picture
by Bob Harper

Data Development Coordinator

[email protected]

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