Universal Credit – rollout in Northern Ireland
Universal Credit full service claimants will have an online Universal Credit account to manage their claim. They will use their account to report changes, send messages to their work coach and find support.
Universal Credit payments
In Northern Ireland, Universal Credit will be paid twice monthly by default. This will closely reflect the frequency of existing benefit payments and is intended to offer assistance to some of the most vulnerable claimants to manage their finances. Claimants will be able to opt out and request a monthly payment if they wish.
Couples living in the same household will get joint payments twice a month, which can be paid into a joint account or a single account in either person’s name.
Universal Credit payments are made up of different amounts depending on the claimant’s individual circumstances.
The Universal Credit amount for housing costs payment helps tenants with their eligible rent and service charge costs. Regulations state that claimants must satisfy 3 conditions – payment, liability and occupation – to qualify for help with their housing costs.
In Northern Ireland, the housing element of Universal Credit will be paid directly to landlords as the default option for rented properties. Claimants will be able to opt out and have the housing element paid to them if they meet certain criteria.
Claimants will not be able to opt out of direct payment if they:
- are currently in rent arrears or with a history of rent arrears still being recovered;
- have a current benefit debt;
- Are living in a hostel, refuge, supported housing or residential care; or
- Where the Universal Credit payment is split between two parties.
Following a switch back to the default arrangement, a household cannot request to opt out again until six months after any arrears they may have are paid back in full.
Social Sector tenants
For social sector tenants, their Universal Credit amount for housing costs will be their actual housing costs. This cannot include service charges that are not covered by Universal Credit or charges for utilities, such as water or electricity.
On 20 February 2017, the Social Sector Size Criteria (SSSC) was introduced in Northern Ireland. Housing Executive and Housing Association tenants whose rental accommodation is larger than they need may have a reduction in the amount of Universal Credit they receive for Housing Costs.
If a social sector tenant claimant has any under occupied bedrooms, their amount for housing costs will be reduced by:
- 14% for one spare bedroom
- 25% for two or more spare bedrooms
A supplementary payment (mitigation) will be paid to all eligible individuals that are impacted by the introduction of SSSC, and will operate until 31 March 2020 to ensure that no household is negatively impacted.
Mitigation payments will normally be made to landlords unless the claimant has opted out of the default arrangement, and manages their own payments to their landlord.
Private Sector tenants
For private sector tenants, their Universal Credit amount for housing costs will be whichever is lower out of their actual costs or the Local Housing Allowance rate.
Helping tenants prepare for Universal Credit
Landlords can help tenants to get ready for Universal Credit by encouraging them to:
- go online
- open a bank account to receive payments
- read the Universal Credit and You guide
Universal Credit is designed to be claimed online, if tenants don’t have access to the internet or are not confident using a computer, the local office can tell them about local services that can help.
Universal Credit will usually be paid twice a month in arrears into a single account, so setting up a direct debit or standing order may help them to do this. Tenants should also use the Universal Credit Personal Planner which checks what changes they may need to make to get ready for Universal Credit.
All claimants receive the Universal Credit and You guide when they make a Universal Credit claim to help support them through the changes. You can use this as a basis for conversations with tenants.
Support to help tenants with budgeting
A number of safeguards are in place to support tenants and help them manage their money. Budgeting support will be offered when claimants first receive Universal Credit.
This support can be money advice or, depending on their individual circumstances, an advance of benefit.
A claimant can ask for a Universal Credit new claim advance if they’re in financial need and can’t manage until their first payment of Universal Credit. This will be a proportion of the full payment and will be recovered over a period of time.
First Universal Credit payment
Universal Credit is assessed monthly and paid twice a month in arrears. The first payment will usually be received 5-6 weeks after they submit their claim. Housing costs are paid monthly in arrears.
Many new claimants of Universal Credit will be coming from work and will be able to support themselves until they receive their first Universal Credit payment, using their final payment of earnings.
However, where needed, a claimant can ask for a Universal Credit new claim advance if they’re in financial need and can’t manage until their first payment of Universal Credit.
Checks on rent and tenancies under Universal Credit
The claimant will be asked to provide the appropriate evidence to support their Universal Credit claim.
If a tenant doesn’t have a copy of their tenancy agreement, Universal Credit may accept a letter from the landlord confirming the current rent and service charges.
Annual rent changes
Claimants should tell Universal Credit of any changes that might affect their Universal Credit payment, including annual rent changes and changes to eligible service charges.
Notifying landlords that tenants are claiming Universal Credit
If you’re a social landlord and have a tenant receiving Universal Credit, as part of the housing costs verification process, a form is sent to the claimant’s social rented sector landlord asking for housing cost details. This is also the notification that a claim has been made.
This is in line with the Social Security (Information Sharing in Relation to Welfare Services etc - Amendment) Regulations 2015 that will enable the sharing of limited relevant information with social landlords.
The supply of information and its appropriate use is governed by requirements of the Data Protection Act. Social landlords will have an obligation only to use the information supplied by Universal Credit for its specific intended purposes.
The Department for Communities does not inform private landlords that their tenant has made a claim to Universal Credit. However, DfC will contact private landlords where a claimant has given their consent, to capture bank details to enable payments to be made.
Universal Credit will be calculated monthly and paid to the claimant twice monthly. However, housing costs will be paid monthly to the landlord.
If rent is paid weekly, the monthly rate will be worked out by multiplying the weekly rent by 52, then dividing by 12.
- 4 weekly payments are multiplied by 13 and divided by 12
- 3 monthly payments are multiplied by 4 and divided by 12
- annual payments are divided by 12
Universal Credit will always be calculated based on a 52 week year, unless rent is charged over fewer than 52 weeks.
If rent is charged over fewer than 52 weeks, the monthly payment will be worked out based on the number of weeks rent is charged. For example, if rent is payable 48 weeks of the year, Universal Credit will be calculated as weekly rent multiplied by 48 and divided by 12.
Tenants should be made aware of any rent free weeks they may be entitled to so that they can notify DfC, this will help to avoid confusion and ensure payments are accurate.
Universal Credit payments for 2 homes
Support through Universal Credit can be paid on 2 homes if:
- liability for 2 homes has arisen because of fear of violence in the normal home – in this case, both liabilities can be paid for up to 12 months as long as there is an intention to return to the original property
- a disabled person can’t move into a new home because it needs adaptations – in this case the claimant must show that the delay is reasonable and if so, both liabilities can be paid for up to 1 month
Multiple homes can be treated as a single home, for benefit purposes, where a family has been housed in 2 homes because of the size of the family. This is not time-bound.
The Universal Credit amount for housing costs can also be paid where someone is not able to occupy their home because of essential repairs, but will only cover either the housing costs of the other accommodation or the accommodation which they normally occupy as their home (not both).
If someone cannot move into accommodation immediately because they are in hospital or a care home then the Universal Credit amount for housing costs can be paid on the new accommodation for up to 1 month.
Budgeting support available
Claimants to Universal Credit will normally have to wait five to six weeks for their first Universal Credit payment. Those in financial need who can’t manage until they receive their payment of Universal Credit can request a Universal Credit advance.
If an advance does not fully meet the financial need, the claimant can be considered for a Discretionary Support payment.
A benefit calculator is available on NI Direct to give an estimate of Universal Credit entitlement. This will allow the claimant to budget their twice monthly payment in advance of receiving it.
Discretionary Housing Payments
A Discretionary Housing Payment is money towards housing costs only.
If claimants are having difficulty paying housing costs they may be able to get a Discretionary Housing Payments by applying to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).
When Discretionary Housing Payments are made NIHE make the decision about:
- When Discretionary Housing Payments are awarded
- How much is awarded
Discretionary Housing Payments are a temporary solution to financial difficulty. They may be made when people have been affected by the welfare changes like:
- The Benefit Cap
- Changes to Local Housing Allowance
To receive Discretionary Housing Payments, applicants must be eligible for Universal Credit help with housing costs.
Payments can cover ongoing rental costs but do not cover:
- Money towards mortgage payments
- Help with rates
- Ineligible service charges
- Increases in rent due to outstanding rent arrears
- Certain sanctions and reductions in benefit
This list is not exhaustive.
Supported exempt accommodation is accommodation provided by a statutory body, housing association, registered charity or voluntary organisation where that body or person acting on their behalf provides a claimant with care, support or supervision. This could include a hostel.
The housing costs for those in Supported Accommodation will not be met by Universal Credit and will continue to be met by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.
If a Universal Credit full service claimant is living in temporary accommodation they will receive the Universal Credit amount for housing costs based on the relevant Local Housing Allowance rates for the household size, including the shared accommodation rate for single people.