The findings of an independent review of Discretionary Support, commissioned by Communities Minister Deirdre Hargey, have been published by the Department for Communities today.
An independent panel of experts was appointed by Minister Hargey last year to complete a comprehensive review of the Discretionary Support scheme - which provides emergency financial support to people on low incomes - and to make recommendations for improvements.
The panel, which was chaired by Professor Grainne McKeever of Ulster University and included academics, grassroots community leaders and advice workers, engaged with users of the service and their representatives in a co-design approach.
Minister Hargey said,
“The Discretionary Support scheme provides support to some of the most vulnerable people in our society but I want to do more. This is why I commissioned an expert panel to review the current scheme and to make recommendations to improve the current service.
I will consider the panel’s detailed recommendations and will continue work on improving and developing timely and targeted support for those who find themselves in extreme situations.”
Discretionary Support was introduced to replace Social Fund Community Care Grants and Crisis Loans following their abolition as part of the British Government’s welfare reforms in 2016.
Awards can be made as either an interest-free loan or a non-repayable grant.
Amongst the panel’s recommendations was the priority of grants over loans and the adjustment of income thresholds to reflect household composition.
Minister Hargey continued:
I would like to thank the panel chair, Professor Gráinne McKeever and the other panel members for the comprehensive work carried out and their critical examination of what works well within the current scheme and what we can do better. I am also pleased to note that people who have used this support were provided the opportunity to share their experiences of it.”
Professor Gráinne McKeever from Ulster University, Chair of the independent review panel said,
The insights we gathered from scheme claimants, together with the perspectives shared with us by community, advice and voluntary sector organisations, reinforce that Discretionary Support is critically important and should be protected. It can help to take people out of destitute circumstances, and this will come into even sharper focus as the cost-of-living increases continue to escalate.
This is a limited budget attempting to address unlimited demand and while it cannot compensate for income inadequacy arising from employment and social security benefits systems, the reforms proposed by the review panel seek to ensure that those most at risk of destitution can access support through the scheme, in the knowledge that they will be treated with dignity and respect when they need it most.