Coping with Universal Credit

In April tenants in Flintshire became the first in Wales to experience Universal Credit Full Service. As other areas prepare to follow suit, Jen Griffiths of Flintshire County Council looks at the early impacts and responses so far.

Central Government’s welfare reforms are extensive and far-reaching in their scope, ambition and, probably most significantly, the impact they have on the people in our communities. Universal Credit has been hailed the ‘flagship’ reform and now exists in every job centre in the UK in its ‘Live Service’ guise. In November 2016 Flintshire received the notification that it would join the early adopters of Universal Credit – Full Service in April 2017. This did not allow much time to prepare and plan for the implementation in our three Job Centres, so the pace was significant to say the least.

Because the effects are so far-reaching we have worked hard to raise the profile of welfare reform and to have it accepted as an organisational responsibility, not just one
for benefits or housing. We commissioned some research to enable us to scale the impacts of Universal Credit alongside the other welfare reforms that were in place and also to make some predictions and prepare for the impacts that future reforms could have within our community.

The research has shown us that by 2020 in Flintshire:

  •  Working age households on benefits will be £38.32 worse off per week
  •  93.5% of working age households on benefits will have a lower income This research has provided us with a very detailed picture in relation to the numbers of households affected by the reforms and the loss of income to households in the county:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Loss of income on this scale poses obvious risks of increases in rent arrears and homelessness. Families who are living in the private rented sector and people who are under the age of 35 are at greatest risk and are a particular challenge for public services:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the fundamental elements of Universal Credit is one payment to the household that includes the element for their ‘housing costs’ – otherwise known as rent, this terminology is not something that most of our residents would be familiar with, which will inevitably increase the risk of tenants not paying their rent.

Early evidence shows that Universal Credit is already having an effect and average arrears for tenants claiming Universal Credit is over £1,000. Some of these arrears will have existed before Universal Credit and some may be attributable to the six-week delay in payment following a new claim for UC. We are working on these cases to quantify this in more detail.

EFFECTS ON WORKING HOUSEHOLDS

The majority or claimants requiring some form of transitional protection due to the work allowances in Universal Credit being tougher than those in Tax Credits.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is ‘conditionality’ in relation to claimants who are ‘in work’ meaning that they may be required to take more hours or seek a higher rate of pay and failure to evidence this could lead to claims being subject to sanction on their claim.

PERSONAL BUDGETING AND SUPPORT

The claim gateway for Universal Credit Full Service is much broader than Live Service and as a result, we have seen a significant increase in demand for personal budgeting and support services – 65 in the first three months of 2017/18 compared with 34 for the whole of 2016/17. We also understand that the number of claims to Universal Credit is less than anticipated which indicates that as claim numbers increase so too will the demand for this service.

DIGITAL SUPPORT

As the Universal Credit Full service is claimed and managed online, and in some cases all contact between the claimant and Job Centre is via an online ‘journal’, this has led to over 350 customers to visit our front line Connects centres to receive support for this.

 

NEXT STEPS

So what happens next? We brought all agencies and partners together at a workshop at the end of March to consider our response.

The most commonly suggested ‘radical idea worth considering’ was the aim of having no – or at least substantially reduced – evictions. As one table noted, this would signal ‘an eviction by exception only’ approach. In this context, a no eviction policy that was subject to appropriate cost benefit analysis where the implications more widely are assessed was recommended by most participants.

The theme of a more person-centred rather than process- centred approach was also recommended more widely.
This connected particularly to themes of providing more information and advice early to prevent potential problem escalation, rent arrears and possible evictions.

In the short term, greater pre-tenancy support could help encourage better understanding of the total costs of living, more awareness about and access to other support options available.

Responses over the medium to longer term could include adapting rents according to individual circumstances and developing more responsive and diverse housing options through research with local people.

Connected to this was a focus on equipping staff with the skills and confidence to apply more person-centred approaches. This included wanting staff to apply techniques that minimise the impact of adverse childhood experiences on behaviour and making better use of available community assets and resources that can support households at greater risk.

Finally, there was a real appetite for more joint working. This includes sharing information to:

 

  • Implement an ‘estate agency’ concept which can advertise shared lodgings, mutual exchange and any vacancies.

 

  •  Permit greater early intervention and so prevent problem escalation, rent arrears, possible eviction, sanctions relevant to in-work conditionality etc for a household.

 

  •  Encourage a potential ‘no evictions’ approach. For example, through developing options across housing stock so that a warm handover of a tenant that would otherwise be at risk of homelessness for example might be possible.

 

 

  • Enable better understanding of available community assets and resources that can support households at greater risk.

 

EARLY INTERVENTION HUB

 

One of the exciting developments this year has been the pilot to develop an Early Help Hub in children’s services, which is a partnership project involving education, health, police, social services and the third sector to provide the most effective front door offering assistance and access to specialist frontline support.

In Flintshire we have an extensive existing network of effective, and respected, universal and targeted early intervention services that support families to keep safe, secure, in good health and to enjoy economic and social well-being. The Early Intervention Hub will work with these services as part of an approach that goes further to support specific families with complex needs. The aim is to enable these families to build their own well-being and resilience so they are better placed to prevent their problems from escalating.

We are striving to expand on our work through the project board and engaging regularly with our stakeholders and partners to focus particularly on targeting support to households who are hardest hit.

One of the key areas for us, which is driven predominantly by the increase in demand for frontline face to face support through our Connects centres, is to continue to develop the staff to meet the needs of the customers and encouraging them to engage with individual customers to raise awareness and provide assistance to the customers in order to manage the loss of income.

Over the next couple of months more data will be gathered to provide assurances and to enable us to
focus support in the best place to wherever possible
provide intervention at the earliest possible stage to allow management of the problems or issues rather than when the situation reaches crisis point.

We are eagerly awaiting the launch of the Early Intervention Hub so that we can mirror their success and apply the established support principles to assist the wider community.

Jen Griffiths is benefits manager at Flintshire County Council

How Universal Credit works (or not)

The UK Government’s major programme to introduce Universal Credit (UC) started in 2013 and has been implemented slowly across the UK since then. The new benefit was initially restricted to households with relatively uncomplicated lifestyles – predominantly single newly unemployed people – and was in ‘Live Service’ mode.

The national roll out of Full Service Universal Credit started from May 2016. This is significantly different to the current process and has no gateway that limits the types of claimants that will access the new benefit. This means that, with the exception of families with three or more children, all working age households who need to make a claim for financial assistance from the means-tested welfare benefit system will be claiming Universal Credit.

Opening up access to all working-age claimants means that there will be a large increase in the number of claimants with more complex life circumstances claiming the new benefit. Managing the challenges that will be faced by these claimants will robustly test the effectiveness of the administration and safeguard processes. There are several elements of Universal Credit Full Service that could create problems for people with complicated lifestyles. Some of the concerns are described below:

Housing costs – as an integrated means tested benefit, tenants will receive financial help towards their rent liabilities within their UC award. There are still many reports of delays in payments for a claimant’s housing costs being included in their UC award. The problems appear to be linked to difficulties that UC service centres are experiencing in establishing that a claimant is legally liable to pay rent and/or verifying the amount of rent that they are required to pay. In some cases, the experience in other areas is that claimants have not received any money to help them to pay their rent for as long as two to three months after they first claimed.

Whilst the housing cost payments may be backdated to the claim start date, this delay is creating problems for tenants and landlords.

Many social landlords have raised concerns with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) about the lack of information that is shared with them when a tenant claims UC. This is preventing landlords from being proactive and engaging with their tenants at the earliest opportunity to prevent any problems arising. This has been recognised and the DWP is working on a data sharing protocol and a ‘trusted partner status’ to alleviate some of these issues and improve communications.

Alternative payment arrangements – the DWP recognises that UC will bring many challenges for claimants. To protect vulnerable claimants a variety of safeguards are available, including paying a claimant’s housing costs directly to their landlord.

There have been some issues around this in relation to reported delays in the UC Service Centre processing these requests and determining if the alternative payment will be permitted (as most of these decisions are discretionary). There is a risk that if these problems are not addressed that some private landlords may no longer be willing to let their properties to UC claimants.

As UC is claimed by a wider group of claimants (many of whom will be vulnerable), it is important that the safeguard procedures are implemented effectively and efficiently, especially around housing cost payments direct to private landlords. It is equally important that the ‘trusted partner status’ is in place for all social landlords as soon as possible.

Transitional protection – this will exist for those customers who remain on legacy benefits after the full roll out has completed for new claims. At this point (the latest informational from the DWP is that this is likely to be 2019/20) they will go through a ‘managed migration’ process to change them over to UC. Customers in this bracket will receive transitional protection until the point they have a change in circumstances. However, where they do have a change in circumstances (such as a new baby, a change in hours or being found fit for work – but not a change of address) they will be required to make a new claim for UC and they will not receive transitional protection.

In-work conditionality – Low paid workers (typically those who earn less than £1,092 per month) will be subject to some in-work conditionality. This means that they will be required to comply with reasonable job search activities to try to obtain more work hours, higher paid work, or a new job etc. Low paid workers who do not demonstrate that they are ‘actively seeking’ and ‘available’ for more work may have their UC claim sanctioned.


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