I propose to take Questions Nos. 113, 119, 149, 154, 160 and 227 together.
Rent supplements are paid under the terms of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme, which is administered on behalf of my Department by the health boards. The main objective of the measures recently introduced is to refocus the rent supplement scheme on its original objective, which is to meet immediate short-term income maintenance needs as opposed to long-term housing needs. People applying for rent supplement will, in future, have their housing needs assessed by the local authorities in a systematic manner and this should increase their chances of getting social housing, where appropriate.
With certain important exceptions, it is no longer possible for a person to become a tenant in the private rented sector with the support of rent supplement unless the local authority is satisfied that the person has a housing need. However, if a person is assessed by a housing authority as having a housing need, they will qualify for rent supplement regardless of how long they have been renting, subject to the normal means and other qualifying criteria.
The impact of this and the other measures was fully assessed and the manner of their implementation was carefully designed to ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups, such as the homeless, the elderly and disabled, are fully protected. The six months prior renting requirement, for example, does not apply in their case. My Department has been in regular contact with the community welfare staff of the health boards and has held two meetings with senior officials of the boards since the introduction of the measures in January at which the operation of the new measures was discussed. My Department has not been made aware of any cases of hardship arising from the application of the new measures.
Details of the number of refusals since 31 January on grounds of failure to meet the new criteria are not available. However, there have been some cases where applicants were initially refused rent supplement on the basis of not having been in rented accommodation for six months but who were subsequently granted rent supplement after having been assessed by the housing authority as having a housing need. Furthermore, the health boards have indicated that housing authorities are responding to requests for housing assessments without undue delay.
Nobody who was in receipt of a rent supplement at the end of January is affected by the rule requiring that people have been renting for six months before they can qualify for rent supplement. The only people who no longer qualify for rent supplement because of the six month rule are new applicants who, in the opinion of the housing authority, do not have a housing need. While it is the responsibility of the housing authorities to assess a person's housing needs, none of the measures which I have introduced affects the discretion of a health board to make a payment in cases where a board considers that the circumstances of the case so warrant.
In addition to the ongoing contacts between my Department and the health boards, I am setting up a working group under the social partnership agreement, Sustaining Progress, to facilitate engagement with the social partners about monitoring the impact of the recent changes to the scheme. Arrangements for the setting up of this group are currently under way.