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How full is full?

Ian Simpson says the Government should suspend the Universal Credit roll-out to fix known systemic problems.

A few years ago I wrote a piece for WHQ about Bron Afon’s involvement in the DWP’s direct payment demonstration project which came to an end in November 2013.

The learning from the demonstration projects was crystal clear. The DWP commissioned evaluation reports told us that three in 10 social tenants would struggle with direct payments and around a third would need significant long term support, underlined by the fact that in the end 34 per cent of Bron Afon tenants had been switched back to landlord payment.

They highlighted that just 5 per cent of tenants had the buffer of savings as protection against unexpected bills or gaps in their income. These findings led ministerial announcements that alternative payment arrangements would be a feature of Universal Credit design and that decisions about whether tenants should receive direct payments would be made in collaboration with social landlords. I’ll return to these points later after a quick summary of how full service has been for Bron Afon and our tenants.

In the five months to mid-December, 519 Bron Afon tenants claimed full service, which represents about 25 per cent of all UC customers in Torfaen, so we get roughly 100 new claims each month. Many tenants had pre-existing rent arrears and by the end of this period nine in 10 were in debt to us. We calculate that around £51,000 of their indebtedness was due to Universal Credit – £109 each on average. Two weeks before this the average was just £23. The emerging trend then is that the level of Universal Credit-related debt fluctuates over a three-week cycle. It is too early to tell whether the pattern will continue but there is certainly a cash flow effect.

Over the same period alternative payment arrangements were requested for 111 of our full service cohort. We have held back on requesting others and focused on setting up direct debits instead because of the payment delays resulting in acknowledged shortcomings in the DWP’s processing system. Had the recently announced improved system been in place from Day 1 we would likely be seeing the same level of landlord payment experienced in the demonstration project.

Unsurprisingly July was a bad month! UC-attributable arrears for our first 23 tenants on full service averaged £329. Some people had to wait nine-plus weeks for their initial payment – inexcusable!

Torfaen Citizens Advice (CAB) compiles a regular bulletin from their casework that gives insight into the real and deep hardship already vulnerable households are suffering in their transition to UC:

  • 30 per cent of CAB UC customers have a mental health condition, limiting long term health issue or disability
  • 99% were seeking help with their initial claim and around three in 10 with the housing element of UC too
  • The number of food vouchers redeemed in Torfaen has increased by 50 per cent since full service was introduced.

I could go on but please excuse me for leaving the production of the latest weighty tome on the impact of UC in the capable hands of the Commons Select Committee.

Its hard to disagree with what UC is trying to achieve in principle which is to simplify an all too complex benefit system, incentivise work and increase personal responsibility, it’s how that’s the problem.

Back to the demonstration project then. Much of what we’ve seen and experienced with full service was foretold in the DWP’s own reports. Our sector even gave a helping hand by co-designing the concept of trusted partner status with DWP officials three years ago.

It is wholly unacceptable then that driven by numbers and dare I suggest Treasury dictat what is plainly a half full service has been rolled out with scant regard for its human impact. Lots of noise was made by DWP ministers about the move to agile methodology in system design when the progress of Project UC first became a Government concern. Not agile enough I contend.

Recent announcements by the Chancellor about much needed system improvements (note to Treasury – you reap what you sow) are welcome but would not have been necessary at all had project sponsors given proper regard to customer impact in the first place.

So where does all of this leave us?

Well here in Torfaen we are very fortunate to belong to a very proactive welfare reform multi-agency partnership, ably led by the council that has increasingly good links with local DWP officials. This is enabling us to devise and co-ordinate strategic and operational responses to the adverse social and financial impacts we’ve seen as a result of remote decisions in Westminster, for example the soon to be realised concept of co-locating support services in our local Job Centres.

And for UK Government? Well as its New Year how about resolving to suspend the roll-out to free resource to fix all the known systemic problems (and implement ready made upgrades such as trusted partner status & landlord portal) in already live areas and give us a truly full service, which can be replicated elsewhere once proven.

Surely the prospect of wins all round – for customers, the DWP and social landlords – make this an irresistible proposition!

Ian Simpson is director of community housing and support at Bron Afon Community Housing

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