“In Croydon on average it's about 12 weeks before any form of payment is awarded.”
“In Highland all of the people in homeless accommodation are in rent arrears, that is just awful. They don’t get any money for at least six weeks so they are always starting on a negative and a lot of them never get enough to be able to pay it back.”
So-called pathfinder areas for the government’s UC roll out have been responding to calls for evidence by a Commons Committee. Croydon Council’s director of gateway and welfare spoke out about the “considerable pressures” the system was putting upon resources in the borough while Highland Council Leader Margaret Davidson revealed a similar problem. With all areas reporting similar levels of hardship, it seems Universal Credit is in universal crisis.
But the government has bowed to pressure from local authorities reporting crippling levels of arrears among families in temporary accommodation to abandon Universal Credit for homeless households and return to the old system of Housing Benefit. Councils have described how the system is incompatible with the legal requirement to move people on from temporary housing within six weeks – the minimum length of time a claimant must await a decision following a UC application.
The Work and Pensions committee launched a new inquiry into UC after it emerged that thousands were facing eviction and had been forced to turn to foodbanks to survive. The committee’s chair, Frank Field, said “huge delays” caused by the system’s minimum waiting period of six weeks “resulted in claimants falling into debt and rent arrears, caused health problems and led to many having to rely on food banks”.
It is not all bad news for UC claimants. New rules came into force this month that mean UC claimants who are earning will benefit. Although the government previously removed certain ‘disregard’ thresholds that saw single people able to earn up to £111 before any deductions were taken, from April workers will keep 37 pence in the pound compared to 35 pence in the last financial year. This will reportedly increase income to three million households who will share an extra £700 million a year.
On the ground, authorities, landlords and support agencies in areas where the UC ‘full service’ is already in place have been comparing notes. In March, representatives from groups in Bath & North East Somerset and Southwark met to discuss what can be done to improve support for claimants as they transfer off the old benefit system.
Convened by the B&NES Homelessness Partnership, recognising the negative impact on housing security that many claimants experience, participants reviewed strategic and operational issues. Chair of the Partnership Nik Browne said: “The aim was to be as constructive as possible, identifying what responses have worked and where support could be improved. We also raised a number of questions for the DWP to clarify any ambiguities within the system and in the hope of encouraging further upgrades.”
Key findings of the group were that the transition is the key issue and that vulnerable people are most likely to fall foul of an intransigent system. They agreed support needs to be focused on the transition period, potentially engaging claimants around the likely triggers of moving onto UC, like moving home or losing a job, with DWP-commissioned budgeting support coming on-stream once the claim is in place. Early communications were called for, giving claimants time to plan and make adjustments in preparation for a period without income.
One landlord in Bath reported using APAs (Alternative Payment Arrangements, where the UC housing element is paid direct to the landlord) only in extreme circumstances, if the claimant is particularly vulnerable or in severe arrears, for example, on account of poor communications from DWP. Where deductions for advance payments or sanctions are taken from the housing element, they said landlords face an impossible task of reconciling receipts because tenants do not fully understand the breakdown of the UC payment or share that information with the landlord.
The Northern Housing Consortium is a network of authorities and social landlords monitoring developments affecting 3.5 million largely social tenants across the North West, North East, and Yorkshire and Humber areas. In February it published the third in a series of four briefings on the impact of Universal Credit. It had canvassed its members on the claimant experience and whether it is improving over time, how it is affecting landlords' day to day business, and which groups are affected the most. Almost all reported they knew of claimants turning to foodbanks, two fifths reported some tenants were terminating tenancies and half of the organisations were now using credit reference checks prior to tenancy. Over three quarters reported issues with the consistency of information from DWP, more than 80 per cent had witnessed delays in UC payment processing and a third of landlords had moved to taking rent payments in arrears to match the UC system. It also highlighted additional challenges for BME communities where English may be a second language or IT skills are lacking..
One respondent reported “instances of customers not being able to feed themselves or heat their properties while UC is awaiting to be assessed and paid and we have had an increase of food vouchers being requested”.
In November, it was reported that a Scottish committee of MSPs heard UC’s claim to simplify the welfare system and make work pay described as a “bad joke” by a representative of Citizens Advice in Musselborough, another of the pathfinder areas of UC’s full service. From evidence around the UK, it is clear Universal Credit has a long way to go before it is fit for purpose and that, meanwhile, claimants on the edge of poverty remain the subjects of one of the biggest social experiments ever seen.