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Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey has announced the appointment of an expert panel to review the Discretionary Support (DS) scheme which provides financial support to individuals in crisis situations.

The Independent Review panel will be chaired by Professor Grainne McKeever, a professor of Law and Social Justice at Ulster University.

Professor McKeever will be joined by a range of academics, grassroots community leaders and advice workers, including Dr Ciara Fitzpatrick, also of Ulster University; Gerry McConville of the Falls Community Council; Jonny Currie of the Trussell Trust, Ursula O’Hare of Law Centre NI and Kevin Higgins of Advice NI.

Minister Hargey said:

"Discretionary Support was designed to ensure that immediate assistance could be given to individuals who found themselves facing extreme circumstances. The obvious need for such a programme was called into sharp focus last year with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it was clear enhancements to the Scheme were needed to support people on low incomes who were worst affected by the pandemic – so we made sure these enhancements were made.  I want to do more so I have appointed an expert panel to review the Discretionary Support scheme. This review gives the panel scope to look at all aspects of the current programme and to provide any recommendations needed to make it better.”

Discretionary Support was introduced to replace Social Fund Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans following their abolition as part of Westminster welfare reforms in 2016. Awards can be made as either an interest-free loan or a non-repayable grant.

The Department has previously carried out internal reviews of current DS policy, legislation and operational delivery.The Minister’s appointment of an expert panel provides the next stage of a comprehensive review which will engage with users of the service and their representatives in a co-design approach.

Minister Hargey continued:

“I would like to thank the panel chair, Professor Grainne McKeever and the other panel members, for taking forward this review, which I have asked to be completed within a short three to four month timeframe. I look forward to receiving the Panel’s recommendations and to supporting people who find themselves in extreme situations.”

Professor Gráinne McKeever said:

"I am honoured to be appointed to Chair this important and independent review into Discretionary Support, which provides a lifeline for those in crisis. Northern Ireland has developed a unique system which replaced the Social Fund and the Review will examine how well this is working for those who need to access it. I'm looking forward to working the panel and other experts in this area, particularly experts by experience, to inform our review and recommendations."