Social Security Advisory Committee meets local advisers at the Law Centre
On 10 February, Law Centre (NI) hosted a meeting between the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) and members of the Welfare Reform Group. SSAC is consulting local agencies on the impact of welfare reform and other benefits issues.
SSAC is a UK-wide advisory non-departmental public body with an important role in scrutinising social security legislation.
Convened by the Law Centre, the Welfare Reform Group is a coalition of voluntary and community organisations whose client groups are affected by welfare reform developments.
Belfast High Court rules Widowed Parent’s Allowance applies to unmarried mother
Law Centre (NI) welcomes this week's ruling in favour of an unmarried mother who launched legal action over her inability to access a widowed parent's allowance.
Citizens Advice had applied to Belfast High Court for judicial review on behalf of a client whose children were denied bereavement benefits following the death of her partner of 23 years.
The Court ruled that the client had no claim to the lump sum bereavement benefit but that she should have access to a £112.55 weekly payment, conferred due to parentage.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Treacy said: "Even allowing for the State's margin of appreciation, I do not consider that the exclusion of the applicant from widowed parent's allowance on the grounds of her marital status can be justified.
"Indeed, it may seem somewhat strange to rely, as a justification for the restriction, on the contention that it promotes the institution of marriage and civil partnership when parents, whatever the status of the relationship, owe the same financial or legal duties towards their children.”
The Law Centre congratulates Citizens Advice on this significant decision with potential UK-wide implications.
NIJAC seeks to appoint County Court Judge and CICAP Lay Member
County Court judge
Northern Ireland Judicial Appointments Commission is inviting applications for the office of County Court Judge. It is intended to make one appointment (and to create a reserve list).
The scheme is open to applications from Friday 22 January 2016 and completed applications must be received by NIJAC no later than 12 (noon) on Monday 15 February 2016.
Further details: NIJAC- Current Opportunities
NIJAC is also inviting applications for appointment to the office of fee paid Adjudicator (Lay Member) of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Appeals Panel for Northern Ireland (CICAP).
Further details: NIJAC- Current Opportunities
Missed our welfare reform seminar?
Listen or read about it here
OFMDFM active ageing strategy launched today
OFMDFM has launched its Active Ageing Strategy today.
The Law Centre fed into the strategy through the participation of our Assistant Director (Policy and Communications) Ursula O'Hare in the Ageing Strategy Advisory Group. The Group was chaired by Claire Keatinge, the former Commissioner for Older People.
Tbhe vision is of "Northern Ireland being an age friendly region in which people, as they get older, are valued and supported to live actively to their fullest potential; with their rights respected and their dignity protected."
The strategy is to be implemented through the Delivering Social Change Initiative through a series of actions detailed in Annex B of the report. It involves two phases:
- a first phase of actions for which funding have been identified: covering age-friendly environments, fuel poverty, fear of crime, engagement, digital inclusion, a volunteering strategy, care and dementia services phase 1, aprenticeship, education and leisure, discrimination, decision making and mental capacity,
- a second phase of actions for which funding remains to be secured: benefit uptake, accessible homes in the public sector, care and dementia services phase 2, quality of life in care homes, support for carers, and employment opportunities.
The report states:
"OFMDFM will also liaise with its Ageing Strategy Advisory Group, which includes older people and members of groups representing the interests of older people.
We will explore with this group, which has played such an important role in providing advice during the development of this Strategy, whether it will provide a monitoring and review role of the delivery of the strategy through meetings with Junior Ministers and officials.
We will also make arrangements to enable older people directly to be involved in the monitoring of how the Strategy is implemented and to have direct access to appropriate officials."
UK signs up to international commitment to prevent forced labour
Today, 22 January, the UK became the third country in the world to sign up to an important international commitment to prevent forced labour and to protect all workers from exploitation.
The UK has joined Norway and Niger in ratifying the International Labour Organisation (ILO)'s Protocol on Forced Labour.
Building on the Forced Labour Convention of 1930, the Protocol adds requirements for governments to raise awareness, address the causes of exploitation, and strengthen legislation to tackle labour exploitation. Importantly it emphasises the need to both support and protect victims of forced labour.
Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX), an organisation working to end human trafficking for labour exploitation, has welcomed this move but cautioned that some aspects of the UK Immigration Bill threaten to weaken labour inspection and therefore the UK compliance with the Protocol.
More information on the website of Focus on Labour Exploitation
DEL/DoJ seminar on labour exploitation
Awareness Raising Seminar on Labour Exploitation
Thursday 28 January
Wellington Park Hotel, 21 Malone Road, Belfast, BT9 6RU
Speakers will include representatives from the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Justice, the PSNI, Freedom Acts, Law Centre (NI) and Migrant Help.
Registration, tea and coffee: 9.30am
1pm: light lunch
Free parking available
Northern Ireland's welfare reform advisory group publishes recommendations
The Welfare Reform Mitigations Group has published its report today.
Chaired by Professor Eileen Evason, the Group was set up as part of the Fresh Start Agreement.
The report makes a number of recommendations to soften the impact of welfare reform in Northern Ireland and provide independent advice to people who need support as they navigate the changes to the benefit system.
The recommendations cover mitigation payments to carers, people suffering ill health and families on low incomes.
Headline recommendations of particular interest to social security advisers include:
- covering 75% of the loss incurred by people on Disability Living Allowance who would lose out over £10 a month in the move to Personal Independence Payment (PIP);
- additional PIP points for those with conflict related injuries;
- using the resources originally allocated to cover planned tax credit cuts to help people affected by the introduction of Universal Credit, as tax credit cuts have since been abandoned by the UK government.
As expected, the report also recommends full mitigation for the bedroom tax.
Eileen Evason will discuss the report's recommendations at the Law Centre's AGM and seminar on Thursday 28 January. Other speakers include Alison Garnham of Child Poverty Action Group, NI Human Rights Chief Commissioner Les Allamby and Dr Grainne McKeever of Ulster University and Social Security Advisory Committee. Find out more about the event here.
Changes to State Pension Age affect social security benefits
The Department for Work and Pensions has announced that the State Pension age is going to increase at a faster pace than originally planned under the Pensions Act 2011.
From April 2016, women’s State Pension age will increase more quickly, to reach 65 by November 2018 instead of March 2020.
From December 2018, the State Pension age for both men and women will start to increase to reach age 66 by October 2020 instead of 2026.
How this will apply in practice:
- women born on or after 6 April 1953 will be affected by the accelerated equalisation of State Pension age to 65;
- men and women born after 5 December 1953 but before 6 October 1954 will have a State Pension age between 65 and 66;
- men and women born on or after 6 October 1954 and before 6 April 1960 will have a State Pension age of 66.
This change impacts on a number of social security benefits:
- Pension Credit qualifying age will rise in line with the accelerated increase in women's state pension age to 65 and subsequently in line with the increase to 66;
- working age benefits such as Employment and Support Allowance, Jobseeker's Allowance and Income Support will now be available up to the appropriate revised state pension age; and
- all future claimants for other benefits with a link to the state pension age threshold - for example the Winter Fuel Payment, Attendance Allowance, Disability Living Allowance and Personal Independence Payment - will also be affected.
Northern Ireland advisers who need help with this or with other social security issues can contact our advice line, Monday to Friday, 9.30 to 1pm: 028 9024 4401
Minister announces free English classes for refugees in Northern Ireland
The Law Centre is delighted with Minister Farry’s announcement to ensure that all refugees in Northern Ireland can access English classes in further education colleges, free of charge.
Recognising the importance of English language skills for refugees, the Law Centre has long pressed for free classes. The journey has taken a while and we view today’s announcement as testament to the power of collective effort.
The Law Centre, NICRAS and Bryson Charitable Group first called for free English classes back in 2010.
DEL agreed to implement free English classes on a pilot basis from 2012. The following year, the Law Centre compiled detailed feedback from a range of voluntary and community organisations and made the case for extending the scheme to all refugees.
This call has reverberated ever since, with a wide number of organisations, agencies and MLAs highlighting the importance of free English classes. The Refugee and Asylum Forum made English classes one of its Five Actions in its SAFER campaign in 2015. We were so pleased when the campaign gained backing from Belfast City Council and then from many MLAs during a Northern Ireland Assembly debate. The Equality Commission and OFMDFM also lent their support.
The Law Centre would like to say a big thank you to Minister Farry and DEL officials for today’s announcement.
We have no doubt that this change in policy – while relatively small in budget terms – will make a huge difference to the lives of refugees in Northern Ireland.
Photo: Members of the Refugee Asylum Forum on the steps of Stormont last year, promoting the SAFER campaign, including request for free English classes.
Job advert - Joint Standards Committee Member
Job reference number: IRC206402
The Joint Standards Committee of the Northern Ireland Social Security Agency (the Agency) and the Northern Ireland Child Support Agency was set up in December 1999. The latter has been succeeded by Child Maintenance and Enforcement Division from April 2008 and then Child Maintenance Service from April 2013. The Committee is a non executive body with an independent chairperson responsible for providing the Chief Executive of the Agency and Director of Child Maintenance Service with assurance on the standards of decision making.
The Social Security Agency and Child Maintenance Service wish to appoint an independent member and are now seeking applications.
Applicants must have:
• a general knowledge of the business of both the Social Security Agency and the Child Maintenance Service and the corresponding legislation;
• an awareness of public opinion on social security and child support matters;
• experience of working with the voluntary sector, community groups, trade unions or other groups which regularly represent customers in their dealings with the Social Security Agency and the Child Maintenance Service;
• an ability to work as part of a team;
• an ability to put forward views and opinions clearly and concisely.
The appointment is for an initial period of 4 years, renewable by agreement. It is expected that the member will commit approximately eight days a year. Salary will be £2,080 per annum subject to annual review. Successful applicants may be required to travel within Northern Ireland.
How to apply
For an application form and more detailed information, including the duties and responsibilities of this post, and the criteria to be used in the recruitment and selection process:
Please go to: www.nicsrecruitment.gov.uk
Alternatively, an application pack can be requested by contacting: HRConnect, PO Box 1089, The Metro Building, 6-9 Donegall Square South, Belfast, BT1 9EW.
All requests must include your name, address and reference number IRC206402
Completed applications must be returned by 2pm on Friday 5th February 2016
The Department for Social Development is committed to the principles of public appointment based on merit, with independent assessment, openness and transparency of process. The Department is committed to providing equality of opportunity and welcomes applications regardless of gender, age, marital status, disability, religion, ethnic origin, political opinion, sexual orientation or whether or not you have dependants.
AGM and seminar: what now for social security?
Law Centre (NI) AGM and certificates presentation 28 January, followed by a seminar on the future of social security.
Update: listen to the speakers here.
Cross border workers and Child Benefit
The issue of competent State for social security purposes causes difficulties for many cross border workers.
On referral from Newry Citizens Advice, Law Centre (NI) helped a lady whose Child Benefit had been stopped for this reason.
Born and raised in Newry, she holds an Irish passport and has an online business, which is registered in NI. She moved four miles over the border and was receiving Child Benefit under EU rules as her business was registered in Northern Ireland and she paid tax in the UK.
When her third child was born she received Maternity Allowance from the UK but her Child Benefit was stopped on the basis that the UK was no longer her competent state.
When Maternity Allowance ended and she returned to self-employment she made a fresh claim for Child Benefit which was not processed pending the outcome of the appeal.
When she was referred to the Law Centre she had not received Child Benefit for more than a year
How we helped
We lodged written submissions on the EU law issue of competent state. The decision was revised and arrears paid.
We sent a pre action letter about the failure to process the recent claim and the claim was processed and payment made.
The client received arrears of £3,110 and weekly payments of £46.
"When my caseworker contacted me to say she could help, I was overwhelmed with relief. Just over two months later, HMRC changed their decision and said all arrears would be paid. The Law Centre allowed me to be heard and I cannot thank them enough."
Training Calendar January-March 2016
Our Training calendar for the first quarter of 2016 is now available.
It lists over 25 courses being run by Law Centre (NI) between January and March 2016, with details on how to book and get further information.
Helping young mother access her benefits
On referral from Antrim CAB, Law Centre (NI) represented a Polish lady who had problems with accessing benefits during her pregnancy.
She had been working in Northern Ireland for a long time, primarily through a recruitment agency.
As her pregnancy advanced, she was getting offered less and less work until she had no work at all and claimed Jobseekers’ Allowance. She then claimed Income Support in the late stages of pregnancy but was refused. The Department decided that she had no right of residence for Income Support purposes, although still entitled to Maternity Allowance and Housing Benefit.
After her child was born, she claimed Child Benefit and Child Tax Credit. She was refused Child Benefit, again on grounds of no right of residence.
When her Maternity Allowance ended, Northern Ireland Housing Executive decided that a ‘reasonable period’ for her to find work had passed and therefore she had no right of residence for Housing Benefit either.
The Law Centre appealed all three refusals. The adviser was successful with the Income Support and Child Benefit appeals, having argued that the client retained worker status as long as she returned to work or workseeking after a reasonable period. At the time of hearing, her child was only a few months old and she had not found work yet.
The Housing Executive refused to change its decision, although a recent GB decision found that the reasonable period should be 52 weeks, and that it was sufficient that the mother had returned to the labour market by claiming JSA.
The client is now working and the correct benefits are in place, but the Law Centre is continuing with the Housing Benefit appeal as the decision had caused her financial hardship.
Residence rules for social security purposes are complex. Advisers are welcome to contact our social security legal advisers for help on any cases involving right to reside, ordinary residence and habitual residence.
Our advice line: 028 9024 4401, Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 1pm
Welfare Reform (NI) Order 2015 now in force
The Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 came into force yesterday. Find it here: SI.No.2006/2015
The Order introduces the primary rules for the new benefits Universal Credit and PIP which will be further set out in Regulations in the near future.
Other provisions include a 365 day limit on Contributory ESA, or 'if the Department by order specifies a greater number of days, that number of days' (Article 57). Worth keeping an eye out for as this was one of the first measures to come into force in GB.
The Order confers powers on the Department for Social Development to make regulations for welfare reform but transitory provision in the Order allows the Secretary of State to exercise most of these powers in the first instance to secure the introduction of the reforms. These powers may be transferred back to Stormont at a later date.
As per Stormont's Fresh Start Agreement, the Order differs from GB's Welfare Reform Act 2012 to allow for limited mitigations in top-up payments and sanctions. DSD retains the powers to make provision for discretionary financial assistance.
Caring for Syrian refugees & other trauma survivors
On 8 December, the Law Centre held a roundtable to help shape Northern Ireland’s response to support incoming Syrian refugees and others with protection needs.
Refugee welcome party!
Join Belfast residents old and new for a celebration of unity and community. A family friendly event with music, workshops, fun and information.
Talking about modern slavery at Foyle Film Festival
On 19 November, the Law Centre and Unchosen held a well received film screening and Q&A on forced labour and trafficking at the Nerve Centre, as part of Foyle Film Festival.
The Home Office estimates that there are 10,000 to 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK today. In Northern Ireland, 45 potential victims of trafficking were identified in 2014. This is a 10% increase since 2013. Two thirds of all cases in Northern Ireland involved labour exploitation.
Caroline Maguire is the employment legal adviser at the Law Centre’s Clarendon Street office. She said: “At the Law Centre, we have been dealing with cases of people forced to work in agriculture, food processing and the fishing industry, or exploited in domestic service. We know that this is just the tip of the iceberg as people in forced labour situations are usually unaware of their rights and fearful about coming forward. It is important for the public to learn to recognise the signs so that cases can be uncovered and that exploited people can get the help they need.”
People can find themselves in situations of forced labour in legitimate businesses, not just in illegal enterprises. Many have not been trafficked but are vulnerable to exploitation, maybe because they don’t know their rights or are unsure about their immigration status.
Glenn Jordan, Law Centre (NI) Director, said: “The challenge for Northern Ireland is to identify exploitation where it occurs and to ensure that victims receive full protection and that enforcement measures are put in place to create a strong deterrent.”
The Law Centre’s employment legal advisers provide legal advice and representation to victims of labour exploitation across Northern Ireland. The organisation’s Anti-Trafficking Young People Project helps children and young people who have been identified as victims of trafficking.
Advice line: 028 9024 4401 Monday to Friday, 9.30am to 1pm.
The Law Centre has produced a leaflet that can be handed out to people who are suspected victims of forced labour. We hope to distribute it with the help of local community networks as well as statutory agencies. The leaflet tells them that help is available and that they can contact the advice line.
How we help: resolving tax credit problems caused by computer error
Last year Belfast HSC Trust experienced well publicised difficulties with its new IT payroll system. This year, Tar Isteach referred to us a client who was having severe problems with tax credits as a result. She had been overpaid by the Trust and had immediately returned the overpayment. However, as the Trust system had notified HMRC of the original payment, she was asked to repay £4,500 in tax credits and HMRC stopped her weekly payment of £60.
Although the Trust payroll staff wrote twice to HMRC to explain that they did not know how to correct the figures on HMRC’s system, HMRC insisted it would not change its mind when it carried out a mandatory reconsideration.
We lodged an appeal against the overpayment and final award decisions.
We sent a letter before action to the legal department stating that unless our client's actual entitlement on her current earnings was paid within 14 days, we would seek a court order to compel HMRC to pay her.
On the fourteenth day the tax credit payment was made and our client was informed that arrears would be paid.
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