A new system of Discretionary Support replaces the Social Fund from 28 November 2016. As with the Social Fund, this new system will provide financial assistance to people who find themselves in urgent financial need because of a crisis or an emergency.
You could be entitled to financial support to help you resolve a housing problem. You could apply for a loan to help pay rent in advance if you’re renting privately or from a housing association or to help buy emergency supplies for your new home.
Call 0800 587 2750 to apply for discretionary financial support. You should be told immediately whether you will qualify for assistance.
What payments are and are not included under the new system?
The Discretionary Support system includes grants and loans and replaces the old system of crisis loans and community care grants. Other loans and emergency payments that were available under the old Social Fund will continue to exist. This includes
- budgeting loans
- maternity grants
- funeral payments
- cold weather payments and
- winter fuel payments.
Who can apply for financial support?
You can apply for financial support if
- you are over 18 or if you are 16 or 17 and have no parental support and
- you are on a low income (generally taken to be equivalent to 40 hours a week at the national minimum wage or lower)
Certain benefits, such as PIP, DLA and AA, will not be taken into consideration when deciding if your income is low enough for you to qualify for help.
You may not be able to apply for a loan if
- you already owe more than £1,000 to the support fund or the social fund or
- you have been given three financial assistance loans in the last 12 months
- you have already applied for financial assistance for the same item in the last 12 months.
You won’t get a loan if the money is needed to deal with a problem outside of Northern Ireland or if you are living outside Northern Ireland with no intention of moving here.
Financial support will only be given if a need has occurred because of a disaster to
- third level students
- a person who is subject to a trade dispute or
- a person who has been sanctioned by the Department for Communities.
Discretionary support loans
Most discretionary assistance will be in the form of a loan, which must be paid back. You will normally have to pay the loan back within a 52 week period, but this can be increased to 78 weeks in exceptional circumstances.
Discretionary support grants
Most discretionary assistance will be in the form of a loan, but the person who makes a decision on your application can decide to award financial assistance in the form of a non-repayable grant in certain circumstances. A grant will only be awarded where
- the money will help you or your immediate family to remain or begin living independently in the community
- you or your immediate family have been prevented from remaining in your home
- you need assistance with living expenses and have already borrowed over £1,000 in discretionary support loans
- you are eligible for a discretionary support loan but can’t afford to make the repayments.
Discretionary support won’t cover every type of expense. Certain items and services are excluded from this system. These include
- work related expenses
- educational or training needs, including uniform, books and equipment
- legal or court costs
- medical items
- respite care or domestic assistance
- housing costs, aside from rent in advance
- debts to government departments
- funeral or maternity expenses.
Challenging a decision
You can request an internal review if you feel that you were refused financial support when you should have received this.
If you are still dissatisfied with the outcome of the internal review, you can ask for a second stage review from the Office of the Discretionary Support Commissioner.
Short term benefit advance
From 1 November 2016, you will be able to request an advance of certain benefits payments if you have an urgent financial need that could seriously impact on your health, safety or wellbeing.
You can ask for this advance when you are submitting a claim or reporting a change in circumstances that will result in an increase in the amount of money you receive,
You have to repay the advance within 12 weeks. The benefit advance is only payable to people who claim
- Jobseeker’s Allowance
- Employment & Support Allowances
- Income Support
- Pension Credit
- State Pension
- Carer’s Allowance.
You won’t be able to get an advance on your Housing Benefit.
You can get a budgeting loan of up to £1, 500 from the Social Fund. A budgeting loan helps you spread the cost of essential things over a more manageable period. It can also be used to cover rent in advance if you have to more to a privately rented property. The loan has to be repaid.
You will only get a budgeting loan if you or your partner receives pension credit or has been getting one of the following benefits for at least 26 weeks
- Income Support
- Income based Jobseeker’s Allowance
- income related Employment & Support Allowance.
Paying back a Social Fund loan
You have to repay the loan within 104 weeks. The loan is interest-free and you repay what you borrowed. If you are on benefits, a fixed amount is deducted from your income support or jobseeker's allowance until the loan is repaid. The Social Security Agency won’t give you a loan if it looks like you won’t be able to pay it back.
Winter fuel payments
A Winter Fuel Payment is a government payment to help older people heat their homes in winter. The payment is not means tested but not everyone is eligible for these payments. If you’ve received the payment before you should automatically get it every year. You may have to contact the Winter Fuel Payment hotline if another older person who is eligible for a Winter Fuel Payment has moved into your home. NI Direct can help you work out if you’re entitled to a Winter Fuel Payment.
Cold Weather Payment
A Cold Weather Payment is different to a Winter Fuel Payment. You may get one for each week of very cold weather in your area. These payments are only made if the temperature drops zero for seven days in a row.
Cold weather payments are made automatically to people receiving certain benefits if the temperature in their area reaches the trigger point. The payment is £25 each week.