In January 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to begin a preliminary consultation on changes to rates support for low income households. These changes have to be made as a result of the UK wide programme of Welfare Reform.
The preliminary consultation paper provided the background to the change along with options for an interim scheme. This consultation period closed on the 10 April 2013.
In May 2013, DFP published a factual consultation report along with the responses received to the exercise.
In August 2013 the department launched a further consultation to inform how a new rate rebate scheme might be developed and also to gather fresh evidence of the potential effects on households. A number of documents were published including the consultation document, rate relief examples and the integrated impact assessments.
In response to requests from consultees, the department also published further information and statistics to provide additional analysis. The consultation closed on 31 October 2013 and the department subsequently published their report on the future of rate rebate.
In November 2014, the department published a further consultation paper on options for a rate rebate replacement scheme. This was the third in a series of consultations. The previous two consultations were undertaken to inform how an interim rate rebate replacement scheme could be quickly developed to accommodate the early introduction of Universal Credit.
It had been envisaged that Universal Credit would be introduced in Northern Ireland during 2014 or 2015; however, due to delays nationally, it is now expected to roll out during 2016 at the earliest. The previous consultations considered modifications to the current rate rebate rules that operate under housing benefit so that Universal Credit claimants would not be disadvantaged.
The new timetable for Universal Credit means that it should be possible to go directly to a long term solution for assessing entitlement to rate rebate; one which continues to help those most in need, promotes the universal credit principle of making work pay, is more efficient and provides value for money. The work completed on the previous two consultations on an interim scheme has helped inform the options for a long term rate rebate scheme.
The purpose of this consultation was to seek views on proposed options for a long term rate rebate scheme together with illustrative impact assessments and modelling. It also sought views on a new approach to some of the other entitlement conditions and for streamlined administrative processes.
In March 2015 the department published the report and is currently in the process of finalising the policy.
Now that a settlement has been reached on Welfare Reform, the Executive agreed (on the 25th February 2016) to consequential adjustments to rate support arrangements for low income households of working age.
DFP has carefully developed a new simpler rate rebate policy which adopts a new assessment mechanism for working age claimants. This is in order to align with the Executive’s plans for the introduction of Universal Credit (UC) in Northern Ireland.
The agreement allows DFP to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow the new assessment mechanism to be piloted at the same time as the UC ‘test phase’ in Northern Ireland, for claimants who also need help in paying their rates. This is planned to begin in the Autumn of 2016.
Adjustments can be made, if required, following the outcomes of that pilot process. In the meantime, there is to be no change to the current arrangements and rates support will continue to be delivered through the Housing Benefit system - except, of course, for those households within the chosen pilot area, who will be given plenty of advance notice about what is happening.
Changes to the assessment mechanism are necessary because the current support scheme for those on low incomes will quickly become redundant during the transition to Universal Credit for new claimants and as the legacy social security benefits are migrated across to UC.
The proposed policy solution for the new DFP Rate Rebate (RR) Replacement scheme will rely on UC award notice information with an earnings disregard and 10% taper, as was consulted on previously.
The Executive has agreed to fully fund the rates support up to and including the next financial year 2016/17, despite a funding shortfall between what the scheme actually costs and the funding Northern Ireland receives for it, as part of its Barnett settlement (NI’s share of national taxation). Decisions on future funding levels will need to be taken in due course by the new incoming administration.