In January 2013, the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to begin a preliminary consultation on changes to rates support for low income households. These changes were required 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 April 2013, DFP published a factual consultation report along with the responses received to the exercise.
In July 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 December 2013.
These 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 (UC). They considered modifications to the current rate rebate rules that operated under Housing Benefit so that UC claimants would not be disadvantaged.
It had been envisaged that UC would be introduced in Northern Ireland (NI) during 2014 or 2015; however, due to delays nationally in the rollout of UC, it became apparent that it would be possible to go directly to a long term solution for assessing entitlement to rate rebate; one which would continue to help those most in need, promote the universal credit principle of making work pay, would be more efficient and would provide value for money.
The work completed on the previous two consultations helped inform the options for a long term rate rebate scheme and in November 2014 the department published a further consultation paper on options for such a 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.
This consultation recognised that the rate rebate replacement scheme is a product of welfare reform and therefore needed to align with those wider reforms. It was determined that the principles of welfare reform, to create a fairer system that makes work pay, must carry through to the rate rebate scheme in an environment where there is less money available to fund this scheme. The department committed to finding a means test that targeted those who needed it most.
In March 2015 the department published the consultation report and following consideration of the responses came to a finalised policy position. This centered on the development of a new simpler rate rebate policy which adopted a new assessment mechanism for working age claimants, aligned with the introduction of UC in NI.
On 25th February 2016 Executive agreement to consequential adjustments to rate support arrangements for low income households of working age was obtained.
This agreement allowed DoF to bring forward the necessary legislation to provide for the new rate rebate replacement scheme to be introduced at the same time as the introduction of UC in NI.The Rate Relief Regulations (NI) 2017 came into operation on 27th September, in line with the phased introduction of UC in NI. The Regulations contains provisions including providing for the making of a claim for rate relief, entitlement to rate relief and eligible rates to be taken into account in any provision of rate relief. They provide that the new DoF Rate Rebate (RR) Replacement scheme will rely on UC information with an adjusted earnings disregard and 15% taper . All information will be available from UC allowing a straightforward calculation of rate rebate entitlement and no separate means test will be required.
As UC is introduced to each geographical area, no new claims for any of the legacy benefits, including housing benefit, can be made. This means that anyone not already claiming housing benefit who needs help with rent and/or rates in a UC area will have to submit a claim for UC. Some exceptions to this rule do apply as set out in the relevant Department for Communities (DfC) legislation (Welfare Reform (NI) Order 2015 (Commencement No. 8 and Transitional and Transitory Provisions) Order 2017).
The new rate rebate scheme provided for in the Rate Relief Regulations (NI) 2017 is only available to claimants in receipt of UC therefore it is not possible to claim this without an award of UC. Rates support for those not eligible to claim UC will continue to be provided through the social security system by housing benefit.
The Executive has agreed to fully fund the HB 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). This continues, however decisions on future funding levels will need to be taken in due course by the new incoming administration.