Changes to the social fund explained

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Q. I have heard that the social fund is changing, is this correct?

A. Yes, from November 28, 2016 the Discretionary Support Scheme replaces Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans for household expenses, living expenses, travel and rent in advance.  

Crisis loans for help until a benefit claim is paid are replaced by Short Term Benefit Advances. There is no change to Budgeting Loans.

What is Discretionary Support?

The Discretionary Support Scheme will provide grants, which do not have to be repaid, and interest free loans for people on a low income who are faced with large or unexpected expenditure or are coping with an emergency. Applications can be made over the phone and a finance officer will make a decision immediately. When giving an award, the finance officer will decide whether to give it as a grant or a loan depending on the situation and what caused the need.

Who can apply for Discretionary Support?

Discretionary support can only be awarded to a client if they are: in an exceptional situation which presents significant risk to their health, safety or well-being or that of a member of their immediate family;

at least 18 years old, except if Child Benefit is payable for them, or at least 16 years old and without parental support; resident and present in Northern Ireland, or can demonstrate a clear intention to become resident; not an excluded person; the need must be satisfied in Northern Ireland.

To be eligible you can be working or receiving benefits, but your total annual household income must be below the threshold, set at the current living wage (£14,976 per annum from April 2016). The income of any children in the household and Child Maintenance are disregarded in the calculation of income, as are the following benefits - Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment, Attendance Allowance, Constant Attendance Allowance, Housing Benefit and Discretionary Housing Payments

A claimant can get an award for:

immediate assistance with short term living expenses judged necessary by a Finance Officer as necessary to support a basic standard of living. the provision of household items, or help with the repair of items that have been stolen, broken or destroyed; travelling expenses for the claimant or one or more members of their immediate family or an escort, including overnight expenses, to: visit a close relative who is ill; attend a close relative’s funeral; ease a domestic crisis; visit a child who is with the other parent pending a family court decision; move to suitable accommodation; rent in advance to a landlord other than the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

Only loans, not grants, will be awarded for travelling expenses.

The award will be made as a grant and will not need to be repaid if: the grant is to provide assistance for the client or their immediate family to remain or begin living independently in the community; the client or their immediate family are prevented from remaining in their home; the grant is to provide help with living expenses where the client is over the acceptable debt level for a loan; the client is eligible for a loan for living expenses but can’t afford to make repayments.

Applications for Discretionary Support

Applications should normally be made over the phone to Finance Support: Freephone: 0800 587 2750, Textphone: 0800 587 2751. Lines are open Monday to Friday 8am to 6pm.

Repaying the loan

Before the loan is authorised you will have to go to the local Jobs and Benefits Office to sign the terms and conditions of the repayments.

If you have benefit income, the repayments will be made by deduction from Income Support, Jobseekers Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance or State Pension Credit. If you are not receiving a benefit, then you will have to set up a direct debit arrangement to make repayments at a frequency agreed with the finance officer.

Challenging a decision

If you disagree with the outcome of the Discretionary Support application you can ask for it to be reviewed.

The first stage of the review will be carried out as an internal review. If you are still not satisfied with the decision you can request an independent review from the Office of the Discretionary Support Commissioner.

The time limit for requesting a review is one calendar month from the date of the decision for each of the internal review and the independent review.