Discretionary Support Self-isolation Grant
Thank you Mr Speaker. I want to update the House today on some of the measures that my party colleague Deirdre Hargey instigated as Minister for Communities to ensure that the Department for Communities could support people who are affected by COVID-19.
As members will be aware, as part of the response to the current pandemic my Department introduced a number of emergency changes to the Discretionary Support scheme. These measures included increasing the maximum income a person can receive before becoming ineligible for Discretionary Support. This means that anybody with an income of up to £20,405, whether they are in work or receiving benefits, may be eligible for a payment.
We introduced a new Discretionary Support Self-Isolation Grant for people who have been diagnosed with Covid-19 or are advised to self-isolate in accordance with official guidance. With the introduction of this new grant on 25 March 2020 we ensured that people in the North who are on a low income were amongst the first to be able to access specific financial support. There simply has been no comparable support available to most people in Britain.
I am pleased to note that the rapid response of the Assembly in approving the necessary changes to the Discretionary Support legislation alongside the effort of my Department in implementing the changes has had a very real and direct impact on so many people. This is clearly evident by the extent of the support already made available.
The latest available information shows that between 25 March and 31 October 2020 my Department awarded 14,800 Self-isolation grants with a total value of £2.1 million. This is money going directly to people who have found themselves in a crisis situation during the pandemic.
However, it is clear that we all continue to face unprecedented challenges as the effects of the pandemic show little signs of abating. It is therefore essential that we continue to monitor the support that we can provide to ensure that we are helping the people who need it most.
I have decided that it is appropriate to introduce some enhancements to the scheme. These changes do not require new legislation and I have therefore instructed my officials to implement the revised policy immediately.
The changes I have made are designed to enhance the level of financial support available through the Self-isolation grant. It is hoped that this will be of particular benefit to people who are temporarily unable to work.
In practical terms my Department will now use higher daily rates of benefit when calculating the amount of an award. Decision makers are also now expected to take into account the impact of the financial shock of self-isolation when calculating the number of days to make an award for. This is appropriate as a sudden and temporary reduction in normal income levels will mean a person is at greater risk of experiencing hardship. Therefore, an award of living expenses to cover the whole period of self-isolation should now always be considered.
I firmly believe that the Discretionary Support Self-isolation grant offers an enhanced overall package when compared to other areas. For example, the Irish Government has provided support for people required to self-isolate based on a fixed weekly payment which is treated as taxable income.
In England, Scotland and Wales the Test and Trace payment offer fixed amounts of £500 for 14 days regardless of family circumstances. This payment is only available to people who have been told to self-isolate by the NHS Test & Trace service. They must prove they are unable to work and have lost income as a result. The payment is also taxable.
The self-isolation payments available here are targeted at those people who are in need and are always assessed based on their personal circumstances.
This means that rather than a fixed payment regardless of the size of a family, we will always take into account all dependent children and include them in an award.
For example, under the new rules, a couple with three children can receive £683 from Discretionary Support to cover a period of 14 days. This payment is not taxable and further awards can be made if the family continues to find themselves in a crisis situation. These payments will also not affect any future applications to Discretionary Support.
The self-isolation payments can be made if a person is self-isolating as they or someone else in their household is displaying symptoms. Entitlement is not restricted to only those people who have been contacted and told to self-isolate.
I would stress again that if people continue to find themselves in a crisis situation after receiving a Self-isolation grant, then they can also apply for further support.
There is no limit to the number of grants that can be awarded. I also strongly believe that the enhancements introduced to the scheme are another important step to strengthen an already comprehensive package of support.
To conclude, the Discretionary Support Self-Isolation Grant is a very important and accessible means of providing financial support to those people who are affected by Covid when they most need it.
We know Covid 19 has widened the gap in our communities and has impacted people differently. It has had a disastrous impact on the people and families who are already struggling. People should be supported to isolate if they need to without fear of going under, or being further penalised financially.
That’s why I am improving the level and duration of financial support available to people who eligible to apply for it.
I will continue to keep this under review, and would welcome your feedback as we need to make sure we keep providing support, where it is needed, and when it is needed.
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