NI: Concerns expressed over recovery of overpaid benefits from pay packets

Clare Bailey MLA, deputy leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland
Clare Bailey MLA, deputy leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland

Concerns have been expressed over plans to start recovering overpaid benefits directly from workers’ salaries later this year.

According to the Law Centre (NI), the Welfare Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 2015 allows the Department for Communities (DfC) and Northern Ireland Housing Executive to ask employers to make deductions directly from employees’ earnings through a Direct Earnings Attachment (DEA).

The regulations covering DEAs, part of the Social Security (Overpayments and Recovery) Regulations (NI) 2016 (SR 2016/224), came into force on 20 June 2016 but it is planned that DEAs will be put in place from November 2016.

A Law Centre (NI) spokesperson told Irish Legal News: “DEAs arise where DfC or Housing Executive has been unable to recover money owed from people not in receipt of a benefit, and who have not voluntarily agreed to repay. This may be recovered by deduction from the debtor’s earnings. DfC and Housing Executive do not have to go through the civil courts to do this.

“For example, such a situation could arise when an overpayment recovery has not been completed but the person ceases to receive benefits through finding employment, getting a pay rise or other change in circumstances. DEAs also cover repayments of Social Fund loans.

“A DEA operates differently from other orders such as a Deduction from Earnings Order (DEO) or Attachment of Earnings Order (AEO). A DEA does not replace these other orders. In some circumstances employers may receive requests to implement deductions for multiple orders for the same employee.”

DfC guidance for employers is now available online.

Clare Bailey, South Belfast MLA and deputy leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, said she is “concerned that those on already low incomes will be unable to manage their budget if money is unexpectedly taken from them” through DEAs.

Ms Bailey said: “While around 6,000 people with outstanding debt will be written to, measures need to be put in place to ensure that they speak to a debt advisor before any repayments are imposed.

“I am concerned that many of those who receive a letter will be worried about the impact of repayments and they should be supported, not penalised.

“I would like to know how much of this benefit debt has come about through error made by the Department, leading to people receiving money in good faith that they were not entitled to.

“That this money is now going to be claimed back in this way is inefficient and stressful.”

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