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Fixing Universal Credit must remain a priority

Will Atkinson hails progress so far but the campaign continues for further changes.

In February, we launched a joint campaign with our sister housing federations in the rest of the UK to reform the broken Universal Credit (UC) system to work for all claimants, but especially people living in housing association homes. Our asks set out to improve the way people receive support for rent, but also the wider UC system, including calling for an end to the five-week wait for money, and more data sharing between Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and social landlords.

We set the ambition of delivering our changes within one year; such is the pressure facing those claiming UC. So, three months on, how far have we come?

We have worked with our members to fully understand the detailed solutions required to make our asks a reality and have taken them to civil servants, ministers and MPs. This has included securing meetings with DWP officials to discuss our asks around managed migration, which will aim to move every benefit claimant on to Universal Credit by 2023, and we have made significant progress towards implementing data sharing with housing associations, something which ministers have described as ‘a priority’.

We have made substantial advances towards ensuring that, where a tenant has opted to have the rent element of their claim paid directly to their landlord, both payments are made at similar times, with the DWP ensuring that the work required to make this a reality is undertaken this year.

The remaining four asks require large policy changes, which can only be made under the direction of the work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd. We met with the secretary of state recently to discuss Universal Credit, and are pleased with the clear intention to end the freeze on working age benefits in April 2020.

This change is vital to all claimants of working age benefits, including Universal Credit, Job Seeker’s Allowance, housing benefit and other key areas of social security. It is particularly crucial for people trapped in temporary accommodation with cuts to housing benefit making it impossible to secure permanent accommodation in the private rented sector. We know that the only sustainable solution to homelessness is to build more social housing, but in the short term, housing benefit must be sufficient to cover the cost of private rented housing for people finding themselves homeless.

For the majority of Universal Credit claimants, the most damaging element of the benefit’s design is the initial five week wait for payment. This plunges many into debt and rent arrears due to the income gap it creates. It was revealed on May 15 that Wales is the only UK nation to see an increase in child poverty in 2017-18 and much of this can be blamed on the introduction of Universal Credit, with many valleys areas estimating that almost 50% of children are living in poverty.

The initial response by the DWP to reforming the five-week wait was to increase interest free advance payment loans, which could be accessed immediately and recovered from subsequent UC monthly payments. However, for many on low incomes, the recovery of the advance payment can leave them without enough to live on. This can lead to people borrowing money through payday or other high cost lenders because, although the overall cost of the loan is much higher, the monthly cost is lower (albeit for a longer repayment period) and therefore leaves people with enough to get by each month. We are calling on DWP to make a real payment, not a loan, earlier on in the UC claim process, to support people and cover costs while waiting for their first universal credit payment. Many organisations across the UK have joined this call, including the Trussell Trust.

Fixing Universal Credit is a key aim for Community Housing Cymru, so we can continue supporting our member housing associations to deliver quality homes and services and to build strong communities.

In April, we met with a number of Welsh MPs from across all parties to take this and other asks forward and the interest in ensuring that the Universal Credit system works for all was very welcome. With the support of MPs, we will be continuing our campaign towards securing our remaining asks in the run up to the autumn.

In the run-up to the UK Government Autumn Budget, we will continue to work with UK Government to ensure that working age benefits begin to not only increase with inflation, in order to cover growing costs, but receive a one off increase in 2020, to repair the damage caused by four years of stagnation.

Will Atkinson is policy and programmes manager at Community Housing Cymru

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