Should the roll out of Universal Credit continue at this time? Watch the evidence to Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee

If you want to see reasoned, balanced and constructive discussions around Universal Credit, do watch the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee hearing held last Wednesday (13th September 2017). My thanks to Peter Freeman for drawing my attention to this link.

One very interesting point related to the six to eight week delay before a claimant gets their first payment. The Department for Works and Pensions (DWP) says part of the rationale for Universal Credit is to prepare claimants for the reality of work so that they are ready to live on a budget. It was noted that no one starting work would expect to wait for six to eight weeks before being paid for the first time.

There is assistance available in certain circumstances, but a lack of information from the DWP means that few people know about advance payments. According to Citizens Advice, only 41% of their clients knew about advance payments.

I tried to find information about advance payments on the DWP website. I gave up. Fortunately, Citizens Advice has helpful information on its website regarding advance payments.

By the way, calls to the Universal Credit helpline number can cost up to 9p a minute from a landline, or between 8p and 40p a minute from a mobile. A claimant can ask the helpline to call them back. But if you have no money and no credit on your phone, how do you make the initial call?

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The Ministry of Justice, or MiniJustice for short, is on the verge of wrecking the Court Duty scheme that prevents homelessness

In George Orwell’s 1984, there were government departments that had names with a meaning the polar opposite to what the department did.  According to Wikipedia, “the Ministry of Truth is the propaganda ministry. As with the other ministries in the novel, the name Ministry of Truth is a misnomer because in reality it serves the opposite: it is responsible for any necessary falsification of historical events.”

So too with the Ministry of Justice.  One would have thought the purpose of such a ministry would be to uphold and promote justice, but it appears to do the polar opposite, rationing access to justice, ensuring that accessing justice is difficult for all but the most well off.

But the Ministry of Justice isn’t from 1984, it is Britain in 2017.

The new Lord Chancellor, David Lidington, has been in post since the 11 June 2017.  Since that date, for example, the BHT advice centre in Hastings has stopped 11 households from losing their home because they got assistance under the Court Duty Scheme.  (Three years ago I wrote a live blog about the Brighton Court Duty scheme undertaken by our Brighton advice centre.  I also published an account in October 2014 of the experience of someone whose home we saved through Court Duty).

The MoJ, or should we call it MiniJustice, is consulting on the future of Court Duty services. Court duty for possession cases is the last gasp chance at access to justice.  It is the last line of defence, and for many it is their last hope in saving their homes.  BHT, for example, has an advisor or solicitor in the Court building in case someone turns up without legal representation.

Almost everyone who responded to the Court Duty consultation said that bringing in price to the tendering will be a race to the bottom, but the MOJ thinks it will bring in greater competition…..

What price does anyone put on this? Right now MiniJustice says £71 plus VAT. That’s the fee organisations like BHT get at Court Duty for saving someone’s home.  Imagine the costs to the state, local and national, for each household that becomes homeless.  £71 + VAT must be the Bargain of the Century for government.

Solicitors are already pulling out from operating Court Duty contracts.  Just last month Tunbridge Wells became another Court without a Desk Duty scheme.

According to Bob Neill MP, chairman of the Justice Select Committee in the Commons and a Conservative MP, that, while he understands the budget pressures the government is under, he believes “we have now removed more than the system can take and should rectify the anomalies as soon as possible”.

MiniJustice had planned to cut the legal aid expenditure by £350m, but the spending has reduced from around £2.2bn to £1.6bn, almost twice the plan. The cuts have had a devastating impact on the number of firms and local advice centres from which the public can obtain help. The latest statistics reveal a 32% reduction in the number of providers since the LASPO cuts were made.

Most importantly, there are now nearly a million fewer civil legal aid cases than there were seven years ago.  Further cuts and changes to the Court Duty scheme will exacerbate this and we will see yet more homelessness.

BHT in landmark Court of Appeal case that protects children and vulnerable asylum seekers

When I arrived in England in my late teens, I was somewhat bewildered and a little bit afraid, to be honest. I was also extremely lonely. I didn’t know how to meet people and the culture was very different to what I enjoyed growing up in South Africa.

Yet I had everything going for me. I spoke English as my first language, my skin is white, and I had a UK passport thanks to my English-born parents. Nobody doubted my right to be in England. I was entitled to claim financial support for my housing and living costs, which I did. I hadn’t experience trauma. In fact I had just about everything going for me.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be an asylum seeker, traumatised by war, murder and rape, traumatised by being separated from ones family, traumatised by abuse on the journey to the UK.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to fear authority for every good reason, to have people disbelieving you, having to cope with a legal system which is totally alien which uses cultural references that are unfamiliar to you. You have to rely on charitable giving to eat. You are alone, sad, homesick notwithstanding the horrors you have escaped from.

And then the officials tell you that you are lying, that there is an inconsistency in your story, that you will be deported.
This can be the experience of children going through the UK asylum system.

But a judgement in the Court of Appeal in the case of a 15 year old boy fleeing persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan, should mean that children, young people and other vulnerable persons, including those lacking capacity, have an effective right of access to the tribunal and a voice in the proceedings. The case was brought by BHT’s Immigration Legal Service, and argued by Stephanie Harrison QC and Raza Halim from the Garden Court Chambers.

In a nutshell, the Court stated that contradictory statements made by children should not always be fatal to a case, and that the child’s history should be taken in the context of the country material and the expert reports which should be given more weight than minor contradictions made by a child. The case also confirms that the Immigration and Asylum Tribunal have the power to appoint litigation friends in appropriate cases.

This case has established that “a child is foremost a child before he or she is a refugee”. The Court has provided new guidance to Tribunals to ensure that children and vulnerable persons have their voices heard in asylum proceedings.
Please take the time to read an account of the case and the ruling on the Garden Court Chambers website.

BHT’s Immigration Legal Service: protecting women from human trafficking

Yesterday (Sunday 30th July) was the UN’s World Day Against Human Trafficking. This is an account of one of the victims of trafficking and modern slavery that BHT’s Immigration and Asylum advice team has been able to help.

The client is a single mother with HIV. She was a failed asylum seeker and had not been believed in the past. A fresh claim for asylum was outstanding but it was not a strong application. Having read the file, and following some training on victims of trafficking, the facts of her case it was suggested to the client that she might be a victim of trafficking. It was explained to the client how important it was that she shared absolutely everything with her adviser.

From the responses, it seemed clear that there was more to be said but that she could not bring herself to say the words aloud. After many appointments the client gradually got to know and trust the adviser and she opened up.

It was incredibly traumatic for her to go over what happened to her in Nigeria; she had been badly let down by many people in her life. The client had been tricked into prostitution in Nigeria and then was brought to the UK to carry on with the same work until she had been able to escape. It was extremely difficult for her talk to about her past; she felt ashamed and angry.

The trafficker had convinced her not to say anything about what had happened to her by threatening her that she would go mad and die. She believed this and so had not explained what happened to anyone before.

A country expert on Nigeria was instructed to consider her case to comment on whether her account was plausible and importantly if she would be at risk of re-trafficking should she be returned to Nigeria. BHT instructed a psychiatrist and the client was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

After this evidence was submitted to the Home Office, the client was able to access additional support whilst they considered her case. The psychiatric report also enabled her to access treatment and counselling.

The Home Office accepted that she is a victim of trafficking and was granted her two years leave to remain. BHT advised her that she should keep fighting and as a result she has now been recognised as a refugee, along with her son. Her life has been completely transformed and she can finally put the past behind her.

(BHT’s Immigration Legal Service receives some funding from the Ministry of Justice but requires ongoing support from the public and from BHT as a whole to carry on its life saving and life-changing work. You can support our work here.)

The Grenfell Tower fire and cuts to legal aid

In 2013 the residents action group at Grenfell Tower tried to get advice and representation so that they could take forward their concerns about fire safety.

Unfortunately the residents were unable to engage a lawyer because cuts to legal aid introduced in April 2013 meant that all but the most severe cases of disrepair became ineligible for legal aid.

Meanwhile, in July 2013, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea instructed its lawyers, at public expense, to resist the residents concerns about fire safety.

The availability of legal aid in housing disrepair cases was not as widely publicised as other cuts, and the media preferred to run stories about fat cat lawyers becoming rich at the expense of tax payers.

Cuts to legal aid began in 2004 under New Labour. There were more cuts, again under New Labour, in 2007 – before the collapse and bailout of the banks – and again in 2010. Public scrutiny and legal scrutiny, is uncomfortable.

In 2013, this time under the Coalition Government, as one commentator said, it became “legal aid cuts on steroids”.

Today I heard an ‘expert’ describe the residents of Grenfell Tower as being from the “lower socioeconomic groups”. Most of us would simply call them poor.

But the poor, it seems, don’t matter. The government wanted to save £350 million in legal aid. This means that tenants can be left to live in unsafe conditions because they cannot afford to pay for legal assistance.

Brighton Housing Trust, the sole provider of publicly funded legal advice and representation in Brighton and Hove, has had cuts to the service we can offer. In 2013 the number of housing cases (New Matter Starts) we were funded to take on was reduced from 1,450 each year to 590. ‘Ordinary’ disrepair cases were excluded from the scope of the cases we could work with.

I am not saying that had legal aid not been cut the dreadful fire at Grenfell Tower would not have happened, or that even one life would have been saved, but I am asking why in the richest borough in the richest city in one of the richest countries in the world, the poor are left to live in a death trap, their concerns are ignored, and the rich are protected by the local council.

Housing and Hastings: The benefit cap

(This is the third in five posts regarding housing in Hastings based on a briefing paper prepared by my colleague Sue Hennell. On Monday I wrote about Universal credit and how the six week wait for the first payment was causing problems for people trying to get accommodation in the private rented sector.  Yesterday I wrote about difficulties in accessing housing in the private rented sector.)

BHT’s Hastings Advice Centre has seen clients where possession is being sought by landlords due to rent arrears, but the underlying cause has been the benefit cap.

The benefit cap was reduced in autumn 2016 to £20,000 for couples with or without children and lone parents, and £13,400 for single people. Any reduction to benefits over this amount is taken from their local housing allowance or housing costs via Universal Credit.

The only ways to increase a client’s income is for them to be in one of the groups that are exempt from the benefit cap or for them to be in work over 16 hours. Sometimes this is not possible and this means that any housing is not affordable for this client.

If the landlord was a social landlord and they brought possession proceedings in the county court, the court would have no option but to grant possession if the client had no means to cover the rent plus an amount off the arrears each week.

Having said all of the above, Hastings Housing Access Project still managed to assist eleven single clients to access accommodation within the private rented sector from the 1st of September 2016 to the 31st January 2017.

Since the 1st of April 2016 BHT Hastings Advice has seen 230 clients in private rented accommodation where they have been served with notice to leave their property.

I repeat the question I often ask, where are people going to live if there is not enough social housing, if the private rented sector is inaccessible, and now if those in housing can no longer afford to live there.

If you are facing eviction, get advice as early as possible from one of BHT’s Advice Centres in Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton, the CAB or another advice centre.

Here are contact details for the BHT Advice Centres:

Brighton

Eastbourne

Hastings

Universal Credit training in Hastings

img_4829BHT Training is running two full-day Universal Credit courses (the new ‘all-in-one’ benefit that all types of working age claimants are potential candidates for) for people who support clients in the Hastings area:

Universal Credit in Hastings: An Essential Guide
Thursday 2nd February 2017

This course is aimed at any staff who support clients in Hastings, and need to know about Universal Credit and all its implications, and who have not yet attended any Universal Credit training. It will include:

· how universal credit is calculated and paid
· supporting clients through the online processes for the initiation and management of a claim
· invoking the necessary protections for vulnerable people

Universal Credit in Hastings: Dealing with Difficult Areas
Wednesday 1st March 2017

This one day course goes up a gear from the introductory course, and concentrates on emerging areas of difficulty that Universal Credit claimants and workers face. We will take a practical approach to problem solving, and this will be an opportunity for participants to share their experiences of Universal Credit in practice.

We will also look in detail at the feedback provided by other ‘full service’ or digital areas about their experiences, as this is proving extremely useful for areas which are new to this version of Universal Credit.

Both courses are one day long, and will be delivered by our fantastic benefits trainer Jayne Knights.

Click this link for more information about BHT Training and how to book on this training.