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Welfare Reform Act (Northern Ireland) 2007

Section 39: Information relating to certain benefits

Since April 2003, support services, which assist vulnerable persons to live independently, have been managed by the Housing Executive under the Supporting People programme. Those in receipt of certain income-related benefits automatically qualify under the Supporting People means-test to receive assistance with charges for these services. The Act will enable the Department to confirm to the Housing Executive Supporting People team whether a person is in receipt of one of these benefits, without the Supporting People team having first to obtain that person’s consent. It would also enable the Supporting People team to provide certain information to assist with the administration of housing benefit, for example to help identify where it would be appropriate to make payments of housing benefit to the landlord rather than to a claimant. These information exchanges would only be permissible for limited purposes. If a person is a certain person within the Supporting People team or a Supporting People service provider, he would commit a criminal offence if he discloses, without lawful authority, information supplied to him by virtue of one of these powers.

The Supporting People team administers grants paid by the Housing Executive to provide welfare services. These services provide support to assist vulnerable groups in society, including the elderly, people suffering from substance abuse and people with mental health or learning difficulties, to live in the community. Article 4 of the HSS Order provides a power by which these grants can be paid.

Article 6 of that Order allows information relating to income support and income-based jobseeker’s allowance administered by the Department to be supplied to the Supporting People team for purposes connected with applying a grant made under Article 4 towards housing support services. Article 7 of that Order creates an offence concerning disclosure without, lawful authority, of information which was supplied by virtue of Article 6.

Article 6 of the HSS Order enables the supply of information by the Department to the Supporting People team of the Housing Executive. There is presently no power for information to be supplied by the Supporting People team to the Department. Subsection (1) would enable a two-way supply of information between the Department and the Supporting People team. Specifically, the subsection would enable the Supporting People team to contact the Department when it receives an application for support services. In common with what presently occurs, this subsection would enable the Department to confirm whether a certain income-related benefit (including the new income-related employment and support allowance) is in payment. This information would be used by the Supporting People team to determine whether the claimant meets the means test in determining the amount of assistance with service charges for the support services. Similarly, the subsection would enable the Department to inform the Supporting People team when payment of a certain income-related benefit (and hence automatic entitlement to full support) ceased.

As grants to support welfare services could in future be made under powers in addition to Article 4 of the HSS Order, to support any shift in funding arrangements, subsection (1) creates a freestanding provision that would enable the supply of information concerning grant paid under a relevant statutory provision specified by order under subsection (7).

Subsection (2) will enable certain information held for prescribed purposes by the Supporting People team or by housing benefit teams to be supplied to the other teams for prescribed purposes. The prescribed purposes are limited either to a purpose relating to housing benefit or to a purpose relating to welfare services (subsection (8)). This provision would be used, for example, to enable housing benefit teams to consider information relating to the vulnerability of a claimant or the probity of a landlord when considering whether to pay housing benefit to the claimant or to the landlord. For example, in considering whether a payment of housing benefit should be made to the claimant or to the landlord knowing whether the claimant is receiving Supporting People assistance because of a disability and, if so, whether that disability may indicate a level of vulnerability, would contribute to the decision-making process.

Certain information supplied to the Supporting People team could be passed to the welfare service providers when required under subsection (5). This mirrors the provision currently in Article 6(3) of the HSS Order.

The information sharing powers provided for within this section and the offence of unlawful disclosure in section 40 replace those contained in Articles 6 and 7 of the HSS Order, which are omitted.

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