Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response, meeting on Thursday, 9 April 2020
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Mr Christopher Stalford (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Andy Allen
Ms Kellie Armstrong
Ms Paula Bradley
Mr Keith Buchanan
Mr Jonathan Buckley
Mr Robbie Butler
Mr Gerry Carroll
Mr Mark Durkan
Ms Sinéad Ennis
Mr Paul Givan
Ms Deirdre Hargey
Ms Catherine Kelly
Mr Chris Lyttle
Mr Daniel McCrossan
Mr Justin McNulty
Ms Karen Mullan
Mr Mike Nesbitt
Mr John O'Dowd
Miss Rachel Woods
Ministerial Statement: Communities
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): The Speaker received notification on 7 April that the Minister wished to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at today's meeting. A copy of the statement that the Minister intends to make is included in your pack at page 27. I welcome the Minister for Communities to the Committee and invite her to make her statement, which should be heard by members without interruption. Following the statement, there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.
Ms Hargey (The Minister for Communities): Thanks very much. Hello, everyone. First, I want to formally recognise the many difficulties and challenges that people and communities, particularly our most vulnerable, face at this time. As the Minister for Communities, I am committed to doing everything in my power to support the most vulnerable in our society. I welcome the opportunity to update the Assembly on the important work that I have undertaken to support and protect people in need during this public health emergency. In recent weeks, intensive work has taken place across the Department for Communities in partnership with our multiple partner organisations to ensure that those most in need are protected and receive the help and support that they require.
One of my key priorities has been to ensure the continued delivery of benefits to those who need them and to introduce necessary changes to the system to provide additional support and flexibilities in these extraordinary times. To date, work has been completed to change the necessary legislation, regulations and operational procedures to provide easier and faster access to universal credit, personal independence payments (PIP), jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), employment and support allowance (ESA) and discretionary support. We have seen unprecedented demand in new claims for universal credit, with 45,000 cases received in the last three weeks, a tenfold increase. As a result, we have reconfigured a lot of our services to make the payment of benefit to those who need it our first priority. Since 16 March, the average number of claims received each week has been 16,650. That can be compared with a weekly average of 1,950 new claims before the emergency began. Significant operational adjustments have been put in place that put a priority on payments and supporting the most vulnerable. In the last three weeks, we have made over 35,000 regular payments of universal credit, with 99% of those paid on time. Our average speed to answer calls in these three weeks has been under three minutes. We are answering nearly 95% of calls offered to us. There will be exceptions, but please recognise the context in which our staff are delivering.
All of that has been delivered with a much-reduced workforce due to the circumstances that we operate under. That has resulted in available staff being redirected to priority areas, including dealing with new claims for universal credit and discretionary support and maintaining important telephony services; indeed, I have visited a few of the offices in the last two weeks to meet staff and view the situation for myself. I take the opportunity to pay tribute to staff across the Department, who are providing an exceptional public service under the most severe pressures. Their determination and hard work has helped to ensure that important services continue to be delivered at this really difficult time. These important changes to our operations have presented significant challenges for managers and staff in the organisation. We have worked closely with trade unions to ensure that they comply with social distancing guidelines across our office network, and we have increased cleaning regimes to protect our staff. I also met the trade unions on-site in one of our Belfast offices recently.
Many staff now work rota systems to ensure that the guidelines are strictly adhered to, and I commend them for their dedication in working long hours and over weekends to ensure that vital public services are delivered.
Members will be aware that the universal credit standard allowance has increased for everyone by £86·67 a month. In addition, everyone who makes a new claim for universal credit can now apply for a non-repayable universal credit contingency fund grant, which is only available here, through the discretionary support programme. That is publicised through nidirect, the main citizen-facing information portal, as well as the Department’s social media channels and the network of independent advice sector and community groups.
I have taken steps to improve our ability to respond to increased demand for discretionary support. I have amended the regulations to widen the grant eligibility criteria to provide a grant for short-term living expenses to assist claimants specifically affected by COVID-19. An online application form for the new living expenses grant is now available, and staff have been redeployed to this area to ensure that we can manage the increase in applications.
I have also suspended face-to-face assessments across the jobs and benefits network, including medical assessments for PIP and ESA, to ensure continuity of awards. Access to telephony channels will continue to be available for anyone claiming universal credit, PIP, ESA, jobseeker's allowance and discretionary support. However, given the significant staff absences experienced across all benefit operational areas and the potential long delays in answering calls, new online application forms for ESA, JSA and discretionary support COVID-19 living expenses are now available on nidirect. The forms can be downloaded, completed and emailed directly to the relevant benefit area for processing.
Due to the COVID-19 emergency, some households in social homes may face difficulties with paying the rent that are beyond their control. I assure those households that their home is secure and they will not be evicted. The Housing Executive and all of the housing associations have given a commitment to treat all rent issues with sensitivity. That will support tenants through this difficult period. The Department will work with housing associations and the Housing Executive to help to keep tenants in their homes and to ensure that the welfare system can provide help to their tenants as fast as possible.
The package of measures recently announced by the British Chancellor, alongside changes to local housing allowance rates and increases in periods of discretionary housing payments, provides some assurance to landlords and tenants at this time. I have also announced that the proposed Housing Executive rent increase will be put on hold until October this year. People are worried about their jobs and the impact of the crisis on their families, and I do not want them to face additional pressures about whether they can pay their rent.
My officials and I are also exploring the groups of people who remain adversely affected by COVID-19, the scale of the issue and the future mechanisms available to the Department to support those groups. I am particularly focused on how we can protect the homeless during this period. We have been working with the Housing Executive, which has taken emergency measures including the sourcing of additional temporary accommodation for those who are homeless or threatened with homelessness. I am thankful that we have had no-one sleeping on the streets of Belfast and Derry in the last two weeks, and I commend those who have worked with us in the Public Health Agency, the Department of Health, the PSNI, the Probation Board and, in particular, local homeless providers to ensure the protection of our most vulnerable groups.
The Department’s Make the Call helpline has prioritised its available resources in light of the decision to step back from home visits and attending community events in order to protect vulnerable people and minimise the spread of COVID-19. All additional resources have been redeployed to the telephony team to increase its capacity to assist those who need to access benefit advice and other supports and services. I know that that vital service has been a lifeline to many vulnerable people during the crisis, and we will ensure that the necessary resources remain in place to continue that service.
My Department has also worked closely with Advice NI to support the establishment of a Freephone COVID-19 community helpline. The service is available 9.00 am to 5.00 pm, seven days a week, to ensure that the most vulnerable and those at risk of COVID-19 have access to practical support services and emotional support at this difficult time. The Department also provides funding to Advice NI for the independent welfare changes helpline, which is another important source of information for the public.
Whilst the main focus of the Department has been responding to the ongoing crisis situation, I have continued to progress important work in relation to welfare mitigations. A draft Bill to allow the extension of mitigation payments for the bedroom tax has been shared with the Executive. Once approval to proceed has been granted, the Department will ensure that that is formally presented to the Assembly as quickly as possible. The legislation to extend the remaining welfare mitigation schemes will be laid shortly after the Bill. However, the Department has now implemented contingency arrangements with mitigation payments under the sole authority of the Budget Act from 1 April 2020. That approach has been agreed by the Department of Finance and was announced by the Minister of Finance during his opening statement to the Assembly on the Budget Bill on 25 February this year. The use of the Budget Act will allow the Department to make payments to people who would otherwise be entitled to a welfare supplementary payment. This approach is an exceptional measure that is necessary to protect people and ensure that payments continue to be made. This approach will continue for a short period until the relevant legislation to extend the mitigation schemes is approved by the Assembly.
At this point I place on record my sincere thanks to all of our community and voluntary sector partners, who continue to deliver essential and important services in their communities. I have put in place the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Leadership Group, established by me in February, whose role is to support and input from local government and other stakeholders. The group has a key role in providing collective leadership across government and grassroots community organisations and to develop and implement urgent measures for protecting and supporting communities in need.
This partnership approach has been demonstrated this week with the introduction of the new weekly food distribution service. My Department is investing £10 million in that service over the next three months that will see 10,000 food boxes being delivered each week to the most vulnerable in society during the current lockdown. The box of mainly non-perishable goods will be delivered directly to the door of vulnerable people who have been notified to shield by their GPs and do not have access to local support networks. The boxes will also be available to those who are not shielding but are in critical need of food. Whilst my Department is leading on the initiative, it has been made possible only through collaborative working with the health trusts, councils and, importantly, the voluntary and community sector at the grassroots and with the private sector. This vital service will ensure that those most in need in our society who do not have a support network of family and friends to help them through the emergency will have access to basic food supplies. It will also allow those at risk of social isolation to see a friendly face and know that society has not forgotten about them. There is a tremendous amount of goodwill and generosity in action across our society, which is very welcome at this challenging time.
The Department has taken the lead in responding to the challenges that community and voluntary organisations face in introducing a range of flexibilities in terms and conditions around grant funding, including upfront payments and reduced bureaucracy. In addition, we have introduced a COVID-19 community support fund. This week, I wrote to the 11 local authorities around releasing £1.5 million initially through that fund through local government’s existing community support programme. That funding will enable our councils to directly support grassroots organisations in tackling poverty and helping those in greatest need. We have also released £200,000 to the Community Foundation’s small grants programme as part of its COVID response programme. I am pleased to work with the Education Minister to announce a new scheme for direct payments to families who would normally benefit from free school meals; I am sure he touched on that earlier. That will extend over the Easter period to ensure that no child goes hungry during that time.
One of the positive aspects to arise from the emergency has been the willingness of people to reach out, to help others and to volunteer their services across a range of areas. I am pleased to work with Volunteer Now in launching its campaign, #HelpEachOther, to direct new volunteers to its online registration and matching platform. Since the launch of the campaign, we have seen over 2,000 people registering and expressing their support. Existing volunteers across health trusts, sporting bodies and other large organisations are also being coordinated to respond to people's immediate needs.
I am conscious that other sectors face significant challenges at this time. I recently announced a new £1 million COVID creative support fund, which will be a mechanism to support individual artists and institutions in finding innovative ways to combat social isolation and address well-being challenges. The arts sector has such an important role to play in keeping spirits high and promoting creativity in difficult times. I have also asked my officials to work with Sport NI and the Sports Forum to consider immediate practical steps that can be taken to support sporting organisations. To date, that has involved the early release of the grants for 2020-21, and we are also seeking to have a programme in place to provide emergency financial relief to grassroots sports organisations.
We are all involved in a fast-moving and challenging situation that demands high flexibility and responsiveness across government, particularly with our partners in the voluntary, community and private sectors. I will continue to work closely with Executive colleagues, with the Committee for Communities and with the Assembly to ensure that we do all in our power to limit the damage of this deadly health emergency and particularly to protect the most vulnerable in our communities. I know that I will have your full support for the measures we have introduced so far, and I am happy to engage further with members to explore how we can all work together to protect everyone in our society.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): I thank the Minister for making her statement and will now invite members to ask questions. You know the routine, folks: short, focused questions to the Minister and no speeches beforehand. The one exception, who, I am sure, will not abuse this, is the Chair of the Committee for Communities, Paula Bradley.
Ms P Bradley (Committee Chair - Committee for Communities): I will certainly try not to abuse that.
First, I thank the Minister for her comprehensive statement. It shows the amount of work that she and her Department have done over the past few weeks, especially in helping the most vulnerable in our community. I also put on record, on a personal level, Mr Principal Deputy Speaker, my thanks for including me in many of those updates as Chair of the Committee. I also thank the voluntary and community sector. The Minister is absolutely right about positive aspects. Some of the stuff that we see on our social media from the voluntary and community sector has been truly imaginative, so "Well done" to them and to the many neighbours who are looking after people in our community.
I just want to touch on two issues, and I will not go over anything that was discussed in Committee on Monday. The first one is to do with collaborative working between councils and the voluntary and community sector, especially with the food boxes and the crisis grants coming in. Is that on a statutory setting or a more formal setting, so that it is rolled out in such a way as all councils have the direction that they require to take it forward? We have noticed over the last week that there has been a bit of an ad hoc approach to the food boxes. That is no criticism of you, Minister, whatsoever; it is just saying that there has not been a direction there.
Secondly, I ask the Minister about priority shopping again. I know that this is in other parts of the UK, and I know that it is not perfect. It is far from perfect, but we have a situation here where people are still waiting for baby food, nappies or sanitary products. People cannot get access to priority shopping, so I just ask whether the Minister, with the Health Minister, can look at that again and see if there is a way forward.
Ms Hargey: It is a very fast-moving situation, and, obviously, people are in crisis now. We are trying to work as quickly as we can to respond to the situation.
We have a formal relationship with local government, in that SOLACE sits on the emergency group, which is across the Executive. I have also established the community and voluntary sector emergencies leadership group, which includes regional organisations and local government is represented as well. It also includes grassroots community organisations.
The way that we have looked at the parcels is that we are working through local councils formally, where each council has been asked to set up distribution hubs. We feel that it is better to work through councils because they know their communities best. They have developed community plans and they have looked at issues of inequality and poverty within their own areas, and we are working with them. When you look at England, for example, and this will feed into the shopping list, the difficulty is that the English healthcare system has one database to work from, but, because we have multiple trusts, we have multiple databases. I know that we are not operating in a normal climate but trying to get that information through and trying not to breach GDPR rules and protocols has proven to be a bit more burdensome than you would initially think. So, there is cross-departmental working between my Department and the Department of Health. We are working with the local health trusts, and I know that, with the council areas, the trusts are working together, collaboratively, to get those lists established as quickly as possible and to make sure that they are streamlined. That will develop over the coming weeks, and we will start to see better consistency.
Initially, 10,400 parcels have been identified, and we do not want to leave anybody out. We know that the issue of poverty, more generally, is an impact and, particularly at this time, when people are losing their jobs and have reduced income, we do not want anybody to feel that they have to go hungry. We can scale-up these boxes and we can make sure that other people can be added. They can phone the COVID freephone community helpline, where they can self-refer. They can also be referred through local independent advice sector organisations or from grassroots community organisations, working with the local council, which can then refer in and respond to that local need. That is how it has been operating. It has not been working perfectly because of the scenario that we are working in, but I am confident that, over the coming weeks, we will start to close any gaps to ensure that no one goes hungry during this period.
Ms Mullan: I want to thank and commend the Minister on her leadership, the speedy action and level of support that she has made available to those most in need. In my community, I have been involved in delivering some of that support. People are very grateful, particularly for the free school meal payment and the food boxes. I also want to commend the community and voluntary sector.
Minister, this is rightly a worrying period and, with reduced household incomes, I am being asked by constituents for clarity around bedroom tax. Can the Minister provide an estimated time frame for when the Executive will approve the paper on the extension of the bedroom tax?
Ms Hargey: I answered some of your question in my opening statement. I have the Bill drafted and it is being presented to the Executive. I am just waiting for that to be signed off within the Executive. The key thing is that the payments are continuing. They did not stop in April, and it was important that they continued for all the mitigations that were in place before the start of April. That will continue until the agreement and the legislation comes in. It has been drafted and it is ready to go. It just needs to have the Executive approval. The regulations are drafted and ready to go as well. They will not take as long because they do not need the legislation. The payments are continuing. As soon as I can present the Bill to the Chamber, I will, as quickly as I possibly can. No one will feel the impact; they will not see the difference because the payments are continuing.
Mr Durkan: I thank the Minister for her statement, and commend her Department for the fantastic manner in which it has responded to the crisis. I pay particular tribute to those who are on the front line and those who are on the phone line in advice services. I also thank those who are in the back rooms, who sometimes are forgotten, but whose busyness is reflected in the plethora of positive press releases that we see emanating from the Minister's Department, reflecting the great work that is going on there.
The Minister will be aware that, last night, the Chancellor announced a new £700 million package to support charities. Subsequent to that, there was a statement from the Secretary of State that Northern Ireland will receive at least £10 million of that. Is the Minister in a position yet to clarify how much of that money charities here in the North will get, given the importance of such support for the charity sector, particularly at this time? Has she envisaged how any such scheme might be rolled out in the future?
Ms Hargey: I know that it is a worrying time for a lot of charities, particularly for those that deliver end-of-life care facilities, for example, that just cannot close down. They rely very heavily on donations and sponsorship, which, obviously, are not there now because of the restrictions that are in place. My understanding is that the Finance Minister is looking at that at the minute. I do not know what the definitive budget from the Barnett consequentials will be. The Finance Minister is looking at it at the moment. He is in discussions with the Treasury and he will make an announcement soon. We have an Executive meeting tomorrow. I am not sure whether he will bring an update to that meeting. I have not seen the agenda yet. I imagine that it will be announced in the coming days, because our priority is to get that money released as soon as possible — I am sure that you have seen that charities are closing now — and ensure that it is directed to those who need it. I am sure that members will be informed once that is announced.
Mr Allen: I echo the sentiments of my Committee colleague across the Chamber in commending the Minister, her back-room staff and all officials in the Department, and, indeed, the many organisations and individuals right across Northern Ireland who have selflessly stepped up to the mark to support each other within their respective communities.
In her statement, the Minister mentioned the universal credit contingency fund. Indeed, she highlighted the fact that it is unique to Northern Ireland. Minister, are you satisfied that the current budget for the contingency fund is sufficient to meet the scale and number of individuals who may require to avail themselves of it? You highlighted a tenfold increase of 45,000 over three weeks. Is there enough in that budget? Is there the provision to increase that budget if need be?
Ms Hargey: Thanks very much for that. Obviously, we are keeping those issues under constant review. I engage with social security staff regularly because of the pressure that that system is under. We do have the finances for the contingency fund at the minute. We have bid for increased moneys for contingency and discretionary support from the COVID-19 budget. We are waiting on the announcement from which that will flow. We will make additional changes to discretionary support around the income threshold in order to ensure that more people can avail themselves of it. At the moment, we are satisfied that the money is there for those who need it. We have paid out over £300,000-odd in support so far. We know that, if the criteria change, that will increase again, so we are keeping it under constant review. I know that Executive colleagues are supportive of that when it comes forward because it goes directly to families who need it. We are OK at the moment. As I say, if more resource is needed, we will make those bids to the Department of Finance.
Ms Armstrong: I would like to start off by thanking the Minister. I am sure that it has been a baptism of fire for you. I also want to say that your staff in Communities have excelled. I think that the thousands upon thousands of people in the community who depend on them at the moment would like them to know that their work has not gone unnoticed.
Quite a few members have asked questions that I was going to ask. One thing that I am quite cautious about, Minister, is the number of people who have applied for universal credit. We now have people who have come into the benefits system who have never faced that before. They have never understood exactly how much paperwork people have had to do. I hope that there will be a change in society's attitude towards people who have to live on benefits, given that more people will see what they have to go through.
What preparations are going to happen for those people who have applied for universal credit, because their cash flow has been in difficulty, but who are waiting to be furloughed or for a redundancy package to come in? How do we help those people to understand that, when that money comes into their bank account, they may be moved out of the universal credit system because there is another lump sum of money there? Can you give any assurances to people that we will know that that is furlough money or that it is redundancy money? Can you explain to those people who are newly on benefits what will happen to them?
Ms Hargey: A couple of members have mentioned the staff, and the staff have been absolutely amazing under extreme pressure. That is why I made it my point to go out to a number of the offices, just over a week ago. Obviously, they are afraid, because they are going to work and they have loved ones, family and maybe people with underlying health conditions. They are also determined that they are public servants delivering essential front-line services, like many other low-paid workers that we are seeing throughout the crisis. I commend the work that they are doing. They have been absolutely brilliant, and I have not encountered any barriers. People are putting their hands up to get involved, and I have to say fair play to each and every one of them.
We have stood down certain business areas in the Department and that is to ensure that the first priority is to make sure that benefit payments are made and that we can get those payments out as quickly as possible. We will pick up on the other work behind the scenes.
Universal credit takes real-time information on where people’s incomes are at the minute. People are getting advice. We are putting more resources into our universal credit team because it is under pressure. We also have people working from home: because it is an online system, they are able to do that. Again, they are working weekends and they are working during the night time so that we can make sure that we can respond to that as much as possible, so they are offering those additional supports to people who are coming in.
They are also meeting on a regular basis with our independent advice sector via virtual online meetings. That has proven to be really beneficial, as well. Where changes have happened, the independent advice sector is getting that information out to communities and to the people that it engages with. That is because, like you say, there have been thousands who have never had to engage with the benefits system, who are now doing it in social security.
We are continuing to support them and there are plans in place in the Department, and whilst our priority now is to focus on getting payments out, we are obviously looking at the next phase and what we will need to do. Plans are being drawn up at the moment and that is being reviewed on a daily, if not hourly, basis, by Colm and the rest of his team. We will update members as we move through those periods.
The big thing for me, and I know that it was mentioned, is what people in the social security system have to live on. People are seeing the impact of that now, and I hope that, after this emergency, people look at society differently and that we look at embedding a rights-based approach and that we have a new economic order that protects the most vulnerable in our society, because, through the crisis, we are seeing that our front-line workers are our lowest-paid workers, and something needs to change.
Mr Buckley: I thank the Minister for her statement. It rightly prioritises the protection of the most vulnerable and we know that a tragic reality of COVID-19 is death and the agonising task of arranging a funeral. The Minister talked yesterday, in a press conference, of the 78 families, so far, that would not be able to say goodbye to loved ones. While difficult, it is accepted begrudgingly in the difficult circumstances. Would the Minister agree with me that that stands in stark contrast with what has appeared to have happened yesterday in Country Tyrone, where a mass public gathering at a Republican funeral of a former Sinn Féin councillor took place? That has caused much distress, as was outlined by my colleague Mr Buchanan, and has caused much distress to families who have had to bury loved ones in isolation and on their own. It has caused a lot of mixed messaging. Minister, would you join with me in condemning that activity, that reckless behaviour, and would you raise it with your Executive colleagues and the appropriate authorities?
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): The member is very close from being far removed from the content of the Minister’s statement. In the context of the Minister’s previous remarks at a press conference and the fact that she related to community groups and their work, and the member prefaced that, I will allow that, but he is on very thin ice with that question.
Ms Hargey: This is a difficult time. People are dying from this virus. People are losing loved ones, whom they cannot say goodbye to. It is important that people adhere to the public health guidance and the messages that are being put out there. I heard the PSNI say yesterday that it does not want to enforce in the first instance. It wants to try to engage and work with people. We know that these are draconian measures that are being brought in, and I think that that is accepted. On the whole, people understand the reasons for them. What I will reiterate today is that we need to work collectively as a community to save lives at this time. I appeal to everyone out there to ensure that they are adhering to the public health guidance so that we can save lives.
Ms C Kelly: Like other colleagues across the Chamber, I thank the Minister for the work that she has done and the mitigations that she has initiated to ensure that the most vulnerable are protected as best as possible. Can she provide additional details on how the partnerships involved in the collation of information and the delivery of shielding boxes will work on the ground?
Ms Hargey: As was touched on earlier, we are working with the local health trusts on collating the database of names that they have of people who are vulnerable. The 40,000 letters that went out to those in the North who have been asked to shield also have the phone number of the Freephone COVID-19 community helpline, so those people have been told that if they feel that they have no family support or cannot access food because they have been asked to stay in, they can self-refer on that database. We are taking names that way.
We are working with local councils as well. Each council has been asked to establish hubs within its council area, where those parcels can then be dropped off by food suppliers and subsequently distributed. We are also asking local councils to be involved, because they know their communities. Local community organisations know their communities as well. We are therefore asking people to feed in information and names of those who are vulnerable. Even if you did not get a letter from the doctor, if you feel vulnerable because you have no support network, you can self-refer through the Freephone COVID-19 community helpline as well.
We are trying to use as many avenues as we can. We do not have one single database or list, and that proves difficult, so we are trying to find other ways in which to close any gap that there is, in order to make sure that no one falls through the net in the time ahead. We need everybody's effort to ensure that we can do that. We are seeing it at the moment with football teams, Gaelic teams, rugby teams, Church groups and community groups all getting behind this effort at the grassroots level. We just need to make sure that we are getting the word out that the food boxes are here and are telling people how they can self-refer.
The situation will change over the next couple of weeks. Hopefully we will be able to refine things more and bring in more people. Moreover, the £1·5 million in funding that is going to local councils can be used for food security. I have seen local community groups in Belfast, Derry, Lisburn and other areas putting together food parcels. I would rather that somebody get two food parcels than none. As we move forward over the next couple of weeks, we want to make sure that nobody falls through. Therefore, engage with the local council and get community groups involved through the council.
We are doing work through the health trusts as well. We are also working with the three sporting codes — Ulster GAA, the Irish Football Association (IFA) and Ulster Rugby — on how we can use the activists and volunteers among their membership. One of the particular areas on which we are trying to work with them is the distribution of essential medicine and prescriptions for those who are shielding and those who are vulnerable. Hopefully, we will have that rolling out in the coming weeks also.
Mr Givan: I thank the Minister for coming to the Assembly and giving us that comprehensive statement.
She is right to point out all the different sporting groups and community organisations that are doing great work. I am pleased that she namechecked Lisburn, because quite a number of groups, some of which she has already met, in Ballymacash, for example, have undertaken specific COVID-19 response efforts and are doing fantastic work. Thank you for that.
In Great Britain, there are schemes in place in which supermarkets have been able to identify the most vulnerable to prioritise the delivery of goods. I understand that your Department is leading on the engagement with supermarkets, and it is important that we get a system in place so that people can get the delivery of goods because of the demand that is there and their lack of access to supermarkets.
Minister, it is also important, in light of the comments by the deputy First Minister, who has gone out of her way to call out Ministers and businesses when they have breached, that you take the opportunity to call out the incident in Ballinderry in the deputy First Minister's constituency that has caused huge consternation and that my colleague Mr Buckley referred to.
Ms Hargey: First, on supermarkets, we are working with the main retailers and supply chains to see what we can do. As I said, the difficultly at the moment is that we do not have one database. We are trying to quickly establish that database and pull it together so that it can be shared. Supermarkets also have to create an online IT system for that. There have been really good discussions with the supermarkets on how we can identify those who are vulnerable. I am hopeful that we will get a resolution to that over the coming week or so and that that will open up new slots.
It is also important to notice — again, we are seeing it through the power of social media — that a lot of small, independent retailers are also doing home deliveries. It is important that we show support to them because they are doing some brilliant initiatives and are even supporting local food banks, church halls and sports halls in the delivery of food to those who need it most. I know that they have opened up services. The Consumer Council has an online list of all those local small independent retailers and the COVID-19 freephone community helpline can provide lists of retailers in local areas. We are also looking at the Volunteer Now list to link in with local councils and community organisations. There is a list of volunteers that can collect shopping for people, and we are trying to match volunteers to those who may be vulnerable or may have to shield during this public health emergency. It will come in different forms, but we will work with the supermarkets in the time ahead.
On your last point, I am not here to get into a political squabble or to call out every single incident where people may not be following the public health guidelines. That leads you down a rabbit hole from which there is no return and which helps no one. People are dying and families are grieving at the loss of loved ones. I have seen that in my community, where an elderly mother and grandmother lost her life and her family will not see her again. As a political leader, my role is to call on people to follow the public health advice and ask them to do that, because it saves lives. The more that we can encourage people to do that —. The PSNI and other enforcement agencies are doing the same. Their first port of call is to engage and encourage and, if nothing is listened to, to look at enforcement. It is very much about engaging and encouraging first. I want to do that today and I will continue to do that, along with the other Executive Ministers.
Ms Ennis: Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 crisis has had an immediate impact on our sports scene. The decision by all the sporting codes to cease activities and competitions will not have been an easy decision to make but it is, undoubtedly, the right decision at this time. I commend all the sporting organisations, but particularly the governing bodies of the GAA, soccer and rugby for stepping up to the mark and playing their part in the civic response to the crisis. I commend the Minister — she mentioned it in her statement — for some of the support that she is making available to our sports clubs. Will she provide a little more detail on what action she is taking at this time to support our sports sector and what measures she will introduce, or is thinking of introducing in the future, to relieve the financial burden and the uncertainty that our sports scene and grassroots sports clubs are facing at this time?
Ms Hargey: One of my last arranged visits before this crisis, which had to be cancelled, was to one of our sports grounds, Windsor Park. Sport makes a really good contribution, and we want to make sure that, at the other end of this emergency, sports have sustained. We know that mental health issues result from physical inactivity. At the other end of this, we will need our sports teams to lift morale and community spirits. They play a vital role there. Over the last couple of weeks, on my instruction, my Department's officials have been engaging with the Sports Forum and with sporting codes across the North, looking at what the issues are. I have set out my intention to launch and roll out a sport relief fund, which is about trying to work with grassroots sporting organisations in order to give them financial assistance in the time ahead. We are finalising the criteria for that funding through engagement with the sporting codes and the Sports Forum. We hope to announce that fund soon.
I have also engaged with the Minister for the Economy on the rates issue. I wrote to her just recently, and I know that she is looking at this in the wider context of business support and rates to see what we can do to ensure that sports clubs can be included in the relief that is being laid out. There is an Executive meeting tomorrow. I am not sure whether this issue is yet on the table, but those conversations are ongoing with sporting teams. I will continue to engage with them, and my officials are engaging with them weekly to ensure that they sustain beyond this emergency.
Mr McNulty: I thank the Minister for her statement. Like her, I applaud the work of her Department, in unison with so many sporting organisations and community and voluntary groups that are working together in a phenomenal surge of goodwill and volunteerism that will, hopefully, help us all to defeat COVID-19.
The Minister may or may not be aware of the financial quandary that many cross-border workers now find themselves in as an outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many cross-border workers — these are people who have helped to rebuild the economy on this island, who pay their taxes, who have mortgages and who have families to feed and bills to pay — are not eligible for universal credit because of their specific circumstances. Will the Minister back the call from Colum Eastwood, the MP for Foyle, for an urgent meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council to agree a bespoke financial support package for cross-border workers who fall between the cracks and have no support from the existing COVID-19 support schemes?
Ms Hargey: The Executive, through the First Minister and deputy First Minister, the Finance Minister and, of course, the Minister for the Economy, have already been in conversations on this issue. They have been engaging with the Irish Government to see whether a resolution can be found. We have seen the strife that many living in border communities are facing, and there has been commentary even in the South. Hopefully, a resolution can be found as soon as possible. I know that it is high on the agenda of Ministers around the Executive table and has been discussed with the Tánaiste and others in the Southern Government.
Part of the next phase of community support that I am rolling out is the announcement of an initial £1·5 million for councils. However, conscious of rural poverty and poverty in and around our border communities, I want to look at a second tranche that will start to look at rural poverty. I will work with Edwin Poots and DAERA to see whether there are things that we can do jointly. As part of the COVID-19 community support fund, it will look at areas such as access to food, those who are on a low income and struggling, and connectivity. Cross-border workers are high on the Executive's agenda. There is no resolution yet, but there have been direct engagements with the Tánaiste and with the Southern Government more broadly.
Mr Butler: I thank the Minister for her statement and also for her kind words for the community effort in Lisburn and Lagan Valley, which were picked up by the Member for Lagan Valley, Mr Givan. Paul mentioned Ballymacash, but there is also Laganview Enterprise, which you are aware of and have met, and which is making a tremendous effort, and Via Wings; you may take up an invitation to go and visit it as well to see the work that it is doing. I thank the Minister for the efforts that she has made. As my colleague Kellie Armstrong said, you have hit the rails running as a new MLA.
I also want to thank your staff for the effort that they are putting in. Many of us will have been in contact with those involved in all facets of your Department, and they have been only too ready to offer help. My question is on that very point. Obviously, there will be some sickness and a lot of people trying desperately hard to meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. Are you confident that you have in place a support mechanism for your workers who, like all those on the front line, are carrying a heavy burden, and that those support services will not just be there in this hour of need but will be carried through to the time when we revisit normal business here?
Ms Hargey: Thanks very much. It is a good question. Those workers are nearly forgotten sometimes, because they are not always seen face to face. However, they are essential front-line workers who cannot be forgotten. They are delivering essential services, sometimes to the most vulnerable in our communities.
As I said, I went around some of the offices. People are frightened; they are afraid. There were distancing issues at the start because of the nature of these offices where people work quite closely together. After engagements with the trade unions in the last couple of weeks — I recently met NIPSA on-site in one of the offices — to ensure that we are protecting workers, we have put in social-distancing measures and are making sure that work stations are cleaned regularly throughout the day, because those were some of the concerns of people who were coming in to do their job.
A good part of the workforce are working from home and, obviously, we have had to increase the IT supply to allow them to do that. We are also working staff on a rota to ensure that there are not too many of them on the floor. That obviously puts a pressure on the system, which is just something that we are continually having to manage. That is why I engage regularly with the managers in our social security system. It is such a vital service, particularly given that almost 40,000 people need it now because they have lost their jobs.
We will to continue to work. Staff who we have met are nervous now, and we are concerned about the mental health and stress impacts that this will have afterwards. We will continue to engage with the trade unions around what we can do and what other support we can provide.
More broadly, an issue that I was going to look at anyway, even before this emergency, is agency staff. There is a large population of agency staff within DFC; that is the nature of the DWP's year-on-year contracts. However, our agency staff are at the fore at this time and really showing their dedication to come to work every day. I want to look at that in the longer term because I feel that, if you have been working there for a few years, you are not agency and should be a permanent member of staff with the same terms and conditions as everybody else. That is one of the areas that I want to look at.
There is the ongoing pay negotiation, which needs to be addressed urgently. The unions are actively engaging with the Department of Finance on the issue of pay. We are paying for the car parking of those who are working in our benefits offices, mainly in Belfast but in other areas as well including Derry. We are also introducing lunches into the system twice a week, and we will look at what else we can do beyond that. In conversations that I had with the unions even before this healthcare crisis, I recognised that many staff within my Department are low-paid staff. However, it is being shown in this crisis that they are delivering fundamental services that society needs. That needs to be recognised in the time ahead, and I want to play my part in making sure that we deliver on that.
Mr O'Dowd: This follows on from Mr Butler's question, and your response to that somewhat answers the question. You mentioned that 40,000 workers have lost their jobs and are now turning to social security benefits such as universal credit to survive the crisis and the impact it has on them and their family. Have you enough staff available to administer universal credit? Are they able to process the huge amount of work that is coming their way? I also want to add my thanks — indeed, our thanks — to the staff and to you, Minister.
Also, I want to thank the Clerk/Chief Executive and the staff of the Assembly for facilitating the last couple of meetings. It takes a huge background operation to keep this place going, and we appreciate their work as well, thank you.
Ms Hargey: The main priority for my Department is to make sure that benefits are maintained and are paid to those who need them, particularly at this time. For that reason, we have stopped certain parts of the Department from working and have redirected those staff to front-line social security benefits to make sure that payments are being made and applications are being processed. I know that some staff are working from home because they are shielding or are unable to come to work because of a family member, and they have the IT equipment and are doing a lot of that work from home.
We have just re-prioritised the work that we are doing to ensure that benefits are the key priority in the time ahead. We have also streamlined the forms, have stopped face-to-face assessments and have closed the benefits offices to the public, and that has really helped. We have also streamlined the forms for JSA and discretionary support to ensure that we cut down the bureaucracy and get the processing times down quickly.
Things are working at the moment and we are, obviously, keeping them under constant review. Within the Executive emergencies group ensuring that social security payments continue to flow and that staff are there is a key priority. It is only down to the dedication of our staff — I cannot emphasise that enough — and particularly agency staff, who are going above and beyond every day to process payments and take thousands of calls. They are doing tenfold what they would do in a normal day in the Department, and it would not be possible without them.
Mr Lyttle: I briefly add my condemnation to the alleged defiance of social distancing guidelines that appears to have taken place in County Tyrone, and I thank the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland who are staying at home to save lives during this public health emergency.
I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the investment that has been made in weekly food deliveries to vulnerable people in our community, and I commend the community and voluntary sector's response in helping with that scheme. What information is being used to ensure that these essential food deliveries reach the people who need them most?
Ms Hargey: As I said, there is no definitive list yet, and it is work in progress. We are working with the health trusts in terms of the databases they have, and the health and social care boards on categories of vulnerable people. We also know who the 40,000 people who are shielding are, and we have made direct contact with them.
Primarily, the food boxes are for those who do not have existing support networks and do not have friends or family who can get them the essentials. This is to fill that gap. However, I recognise that there is poverty out there. There is inequality, and that has an impact on finances and people's ability to buy essential food, particularly at this time. Therefore, we want to make sure that food boxes reach those people too. That is why, over the coming weeks, as we start to roll this out, we need all that information from local councils.
We will continue to work with the health and social care trusts and with the Department of Health more broadly. We are also engaging through GPs, through the letters that have been issued and through people on the ground. People know their communities. I live in a community and have been an activist my whole life. I was out last night in my local area, where the local residents' group delivered more than 200 food parcels — not those boxes. They easily identified the need in the community. They put out calls on social media and on leaflets to identify anyone else who needs help, because people will fall through the gaps.
You have the difficulty that people will not self-refer, so how do we get others in the community to refer somebody, if they feel there is a vulnerability there? We have to be as flexible as we can to make sure that we reach as many people as we can. It is about society as a whole playing its part in trying to identify those people and for that list to be centralised and disseminated out amongst the 11 councils. The role of the local authorities has been brilliant. They are under immense pressure in terms of lost income, trying to redirect services and keeping their staff safe, but they have gone above and beyond to work with the Department amd connect to local communities to ensure that we reach those people.
It is a work in progress. If you have other ideas, we are more than interested to listen to you, but it will develop over the coming weeks. The more people we can include, the better.
Mr McCrossan: "Thank you" to the Minister for her statement. I know the House and the Minister will join me in offering the prayers and condolences of the House to the families of the 82 people who have sadly died as a result of this dreadful virus and sending our thoughts and prayers to the many families who are impacted directly, with a loved one battling this awful disease. I join the Minister in commending the tremendous work of the front-line key workers in her Department. They have certainly stepped up way beyond the call of duty and have delivered on a huge scale, given the demand on the Department. Minister, you are to be commended on your leadership on that.
It is important, in these times, to recognise that, out of all the awfulness of the virus, so much good has come out in our community. I witness at first hand, throughout West Tyrone, the huge levels of kindness, generosity, sincerity and the selflessness of our communities, particularly when you consider businesses that have opened their doors, like the Red Pepper in Castlederg, the Hidden Pearl, the Strabane Community Project, Mark McDermott in Strabane. Those four examples, in a day, deliver in excess of 1,500 meals to a wider area. That is an unbelievable and generous contribution to vulnerable people in our society, and I want to put firmly on record the thanks of the House to everybody across Northern Ireland who is stepping up and doing a huge amount to support people.
Minister, my question is focused on discretionary support. I know you have touched on it quite a bit today, and I thank you for the efforts around that and the staff. I have no doubt they are inundated with queries. I have had some difficulty, in that applications that were submitted two weeks ago have still not been processed or answered. There may be an obvious reason for that, in that the demand is so significant. I wonder what is being put in place to make that a more efficient system. Has there been a cap on the amount that a person can claim, or is it unique to circumstances? Finally, how often can someone apply? If they were to receive, say, £100 this week, can they apply again in a fortnight?
Thank you again Minister for your work around this. It is appreciated.
Ms Hargey: Thanks very much. Like the other benefits, there has been a huge uptake in demand for discretionary support, and it had been under pressure. We have realigned our services and staff to support that. The difficulty with discretionary support is that it is a manual system and you have to be in work, so those working from home are not able to do it. That added a pressure a number of weeks ago, and we are working through that and rectifying it. I have changed the regulations and brought in an additional measure under discretionary support that, if you are impacted by COVID-19 and have to self-isolate, you can access discretionary support as well. It will be done through a grant and will not be a loan. You can get that grant more than once. Obviously, that is about people who are in crisis, and we will respond to that crisis in the here and now. If it is access to food or paying essential bills like rent, electric or heat, they can get access to those discretionary support payments.
I am also changing the regulations to lift the income threshold. At the minute, it is just over £18,000. The benefit cap is at £20,000, so I want to lift it above that benefit cap to ensure that more people can be brought in. I hope that that will be tabled in the Chamber just after the Easter recess.
Miss Woods: Minister, I too commend you and your Department for your work and the commitment made to our most vulnerable citizens at this time.
My question is on eligibility criteria and the publication of such to make it easier for people to apply to two funds.
First, are you minded to publish the criteria by which your Department awards grants, in order to make it easier for people to make a successful application for the universal credit contingency fund? Secondly, are you able to detail even further the expanded eligibility criteria for people to apply to the discretionary support fund?
Ms Hargey: The changes to the discretionary support fund came through the Assembly a couple of weeks ago. Anyone who has to self-isolate or has symptoms of COVID-19 and has to stay within their home, and who is under financial pressure, can apply for the grant through discretionary support. We have streamlined all the forms to try to make it as easy as possible, because even I get confused trying to navigate the system. All that information is now being put up and streamlined on nidirect.
We are also working on the COVID community helpline number. It is being managed by Advice NI, so you can phone that helpline number or the Advice NI helpline number. Advice NI is working with a lot of the independent advice sector in managing that phone line, and again you can get support there in going through, or trying to navigate your way through, the system. We are looking at a new communication that can be either in a leaflet or online that really sets out the changes that the Department has made. Obviously, there have been a lot of changes, and it is hard to keep up. The Committee raised that at the start of the week. We are working on it at the moment so that it can be streamlined and can go out.
I will have a look at the issue of universal credit. I am not sure, but I would have assumed that the eligibility criteria would be there. I will take that back, and come back to you on it.
Mr Carroll: I thank the Minister for her statement. I have a question in relation to renters in this crisis — all renters, including low-paid workers, the unemployed, students and everyone else. It seems to me that a lot has been done for landlords, but not enough for tenants. The bigger question, really, is how we can have a situation where low-paid or vulnerable people are able to afford to keep a roof over their heads. I am concerned that not enough is being done to support them. For example, landlords can avail themselves of a three-month mortgage holiday, yet there are no provisions in place to provide a suspension of rents as exists in other European countries. In this context, landlords might actually be able to make money out of the situation, because they can avail themselves of mortgage holidays while extracting rents throughout this crisis. To me, that seems bizarre. Thousands are, obviously, losing their jobs, others are having a reduction in wages and many are struggling. My view is that there should be an immediate rent suspension for those impacted by this, and I believe that the Minister, the Executive and the Westminster Government should be doing everything in their power to achieve this.
If I may, Mr Speaker, as we are under time, can I quickly ask the Minister about the benefit cap? I believe that the benefit cap should be scrapped immediately. It was always wrong and unjust, and it should have no place in this crisis. Many workers are obviously doing more hours to ensure that our shelves are stocked. Does the Minister agree that the benefit cap should be replaced, and does she have any plans to scrap it?
Ms Hargey: Thanks for your kind comments, Gerry.
I suppose the first thing is around renters. I live in a working-class community in south Belfast. I know the impact that this is having on working people and on working-class communities. Obviously, a variety of changes have been introduced within my Department in trying to protect the most vulnerable within the private-rented sector, but also those in the social sector who are paying rents. We have an agreement with housing associations and the Housing Executive that no one will be evicted from their home because they cannot keep up payments. The important thing when you are looking at the payment increase is that over 70% of the income of the Housing Executive comes through housing benefit. It is important that those payments continue, through the social security system, into the Housing Executive. You will know yourself — you have raised it on previous occasions — that the Housing Executive is under critical pressure. We have to make sure that we can maintain our stock at the end of this, particularly for those who need it the most: those working-class communities that are vulnerable. We need those housing benefit payments to continue to flow throughout this crisis, and beyond this crisis as well.
I have suspended the rental increase, which is at a cost of £4·5 million for the next six months. I have put that on hold and, obviously, that is money that cannot be used to upgrade the stock. Those are the difficulties and challenges that we face.
With regard to other areas that we have looked at, I do not have the power to instruct that rent is not paid within the private rented sector. Some of that legislation rests with Westminster and I do not have the power around that. I am introducing legislation here. It will come to the House on 21 April, I think, and that is about extending the notice to quit to ensure that no one, as a result of COVID-19, is going to be evicted from their home.
I am also issuing clear guidance to landlords this week and I reported this to the Committee at the start of this week. It says clearly to landlords that, if they get the three-month holiday, it should be passed on to the tenant. I will also be issuing clear guidance around the process that landlords must follow in engaging with their tenants and giving them a reasonable time with regard to their financial situation so that if anything goes to court, the court can clearly see the Department's guidance and take that into account. We are also engaging with the Court Service around that.
With regard to housing payments, the local housing allowance has been increased as a result of changes; 100% of that payment is now going to be paid and that is going to be covered over the 13 weeks. I am looking to see if I can extend the discretionary support housing payments and to change or increase the criteria to allow more people to come into that. With regard to the discretionary support allowance, through the normal social security system, if people are in crisis because they have to self-isolate, they can apply for that grant under the COVID-19 discretionary support for housing.
We are looking at more. I know that there are issues in the private rented sector and I am trying to address those. We can only take it step by step, so we are looking at it. I know that students have been adversely impacted and we are looking to see what further changes we can make. If I can bring changes, I will do it. There is no problem there, whatsoever. If people have suggestions and it is within my remit or power, I will definitely do it.
We are engaging with the National Union of Students, which tweeted me today. We are proactively trying to look at everything that we can. We are moving, firstly, on the eviction stuff because that needs a legislative change, and it has to have Royal Assent, which will be heard on the Floor of the House on 21 April. We will continue to move on other areas of housing.
I have touched on the issue of homelessness. We have done a lot of work on that issue. I am glad to report that, in the past two weeks in Belfast and Derry, because of the amazing work by those at the coalface in the Housing Executive, we have not had any rough sleepers — those who have had no choice but to be on the streets . Again, it has been really good how people have worked together. I have to commend those working at a community level and within that sector for the amazing work that they have been doing. We are committed to extending that over the coming period.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): As noted by Mr Carroll, we have around four and a half minutes left. In Tuesday's meeting of this Committee, I said that if there was time left over I would allow members who had any burning questions that they wanted to ask, to rise in their place.
Mr Givan: One of the issues that was brought to my attention is on the pressure being put on local government and councils across Northern Ireland. They have triggered their emergency planning mechanisms but they are also facing significant financial implications as a result of that. What support is the Minister's Department able to provide?
Ms Hargey: We have released emergency financial assistance. I wrote to local councils at the start of this week. If they are responding to a crisis — normally this would have happened in flooding incidents — my Department will cover the emergency costs associated with that, if that is increased staff costs. We have initiated that as part of this public health emergency. We have had the community support fund filtered via the local councils and we are working with them on the food boxes. We know, as I touched on earlier, that there is a loss of income for councils. That is a huge loss of income and we are in the middle of compiling what that is going to look like in the time ahead.
We plan to make a bid to the Minister of Finance. At this point, obviously, the initial bids that are coming through Finance are to deal with the emergency in the here and now, in order to try to save lives, protect the most vulnerable and ensure food supplies. I am acutely aware of the impact that it is having on councils. We are making those financial bids for the loss of income, because that income is used for essential services in council areas. We are working with local government and SOLACE on that. That will be presented to the Minister of Finance and, ultimately, to the Executive.
Mr O'Dowd: During the past 50-odd minutes or so, the Minister has outlined a range of initiatives and interventions that her Department has made in a very short period to protect people at this time. She said in one of her answers that her Department was collating information on a number of those issues. Can she provide the Assembly with a figure for the financial contribution that her Department has made to protect the most vulnerable people in society?
Ms Hargey: I do not have that figure. However, I can get the figure for those changes, which will include the bid that we got yesterday for homelessness services and others. It goes into the tens of millions of pounds. If benefit support is included, it probably goes way above that. I can get that information and share it with members.
Ms Armstrong: I did not get the chance to ask about this issue earlier, Minister. I am sure that you have seen on Facebook and different social media that a number of volunteers have come together to provide food banks. You talked about it earlier. They are not in any organisations: they are simply good-willed people who have come together to meet the needs of their communities. When we take learning from this situation, can we consider how we can help those people, who are using their own cars and fuel to go out and deliver prescriptions and groceries to people's homes, and who, out of the kindness of their hearts, have come together in this crisis and have really shown how wonderful the Northern Ireland community is?
Ms Hargey: I agree, 100%. The amount of goodwill has been amazing. As you say, it is not always in structured groups, albeit I would encourage volunteers to get involved in activism in that way. It has been amazing. Whether it is a neighbour or somebody in the street looking after or identifying somebody else, or just having a chat or a phone call, it has been absolutely amazing. I suppose that the important thing is that, if people are out and using petrol, or whatever, they should go and speak to the local council, because part of the community support fund, which is going through local councils, covers those types of issue to try to support grassroots work during the crisis to ensure that we respond to those needs. Nobody should be out of pocket, especially if they are volunteering. I encourage them to speak to the councils.
As I said, we will look at that fund. I have agreed that I will review it in the next six weeks in order to ensure that it is fit for purpose and to see whether we need to look at additional resource for it in the time ahead. They may not want to, but I would ask them to speak to their councils. The local council could pick that up through the community support fund.
Yes, there could be a day of recognition for a lot of people across society. The bigger issue for me is whether society will change in the time ahead. Will the economic system change and protect the most vulnerable? Will it look at the front-line workers who are, often, the lowest paid? If that is what changes after this emergency, maybe some good will come out of it.
Mr Buckley: I want to go back to what my colleague Kellie Armstrong said. We have seen some of the best in our community groups. In my constituency, John Lawson of the Head O'The Road bar and restaurant has provided meals to isolated people in rural communities. I think of Phyllis Abraham of the Edenderry community group. Those people are doing fantastic work. Is there any way in which we could help organisations to target people who, potentially, may be missed in the epidemic, particularly people in rural communities who do not go and seek help, but are now living in isolation? In many cases, they are very elderly people who are on their own.
Ms Hargey: I agree, 100%. You are right. Many chefs and people who are out of work and not getting any income are actually out volunteering now. They have turned their kitchens into community hubs and are making sure that they provide hot meals. We are working with the Now Project and chefs across the North.
We are doing the free school meals, the food boxes, the money that is going out through councils, and organisations are doing that, as well, through food parcels. As not every older person cooks and gets one hot meal a day, we are trying to see how we can work with local restaurants, local chefs and even social enterprises that do food preparation to see if we can provide a hot meal or a ready-made meal service. Again, tell them to contact the Department and we can link them in.
The other thing is the COVID community fund, that I announced yesterday, and it is going through the councils. That money can be used in the local council areas and the kind of priorities for that are around food, and making sure people have access to food. If that is linking in and working in partnership with local restaurants, that is good, if it is meeting the need.
It is also around financial security. Again, I know from Belfast, because that is where I live, they are buying gas cards and they are doing top-ups to make sure that people have the essentials, so some of the money is being used for that. The other issue then is connectivity, particularly for rural areas and border communities as well.
As I said, I am looking to the community support fund to ensure that funding is mainly disseminated on the basis of objective need and population size, so the likes of Belfast and others will get an increased amount. I recognise there is a gap in rural areas, around rural poverty, and particularly in areas with border communities as well. I am looking to see if I can add an additional fund to support those local areas, and I will announce that in the short-term, as well.
Miss Woods: Minister, with the food box scheme, there have been some significant concerns raised with me, through community organisations, around who makes the decision on who can get a box. There is some confusion with the councils and, as you said earlier on, there is no definitive list yet, but who would make that decision? Would it be the trust or the GP? Or is it through referral or through the council? If there is not any guidance, can that be issued?
Ms Hargey: I will just go back to local councils to ensure that that is filtering out. The guidance is for anyone who is shielding for the next three months. They have a letter from their GP and they have to shield. It is not for all of those people because there are 40,000 of them, but it is identifying those people who do not have a support network. People who, if they are in their home for the next three months, do not have somebody who can get them food. They maybe do not have the financial wherewithal to get the food. The boxes should be targeted at those people, but we want to go beyond that. In England, that is how the scheme is working, but I recognise that there is food poverty out there anyway, let alone in the midst of this public health emergency.
I want to get those boxes to as many people as we can. Therefore, the scheme has to be flexible. That is why I want to work with local councils and local community organisations, because they are better placed than I am. When you look at a health trust's list and you look at the vulnerable people that may be on that list, there are a lot of people out in the community who are not on that list, but they are vulnerable. Therefore, we need to use as many mechanisms as we can to do that. We are on 10,400 parcels at the minute, and we can grow that if we need to grow that further. I am sure that the Executive will be supportive. — we have £10 million in the budget at the moment — if there was a need to look at more, we could do that. I will make sure that the guidance is reissued to local councils, but it is important that we do not limit it. If somebody is in need of a food box and they are saying that they have no other support, or do not have the financial means to get that food, they should receive a box.
The Deputy Chairperson (Mr Stalford): Agenda item 5 is the time, date and place of the next meeting. We have received confirmation from the Health Minister that he wishes to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee at a meeting to be held on the afternoon of Wednesday 15 April. We have also received confirmation from the Infrastructure Minister that she wishes to make a statement to the Ad Hoc Committee on the afternoon of Thursday 16 April. Formal notification to Members will be issued this afternoon by the Speaker’s Office. That concludes this meeting of the Ad Hoc Committee. The meeting is adjourned.