Welcoming the government’s U-turn on denying housing benefit to 18 to 21 year olds. How about reviewing other measures that contribute to homelessness?

In March 2017, I wrote that “Denying 18-21 year olds the right to claim housing benefit is bad, bad news, and bad, bad policy”.

I wrote: “If there is one measure that will lead to an increase in rough sleeping amongst young people, it is denying them the automatic right to claim support for their housing costs.”

I returned to this theme in April last year: “11,000 18 to 21 year olds lose the right to claim housing benefit”, concluding that “this policy makes no sense in economic on humanitarian grounds.”

I had been quoted in the Brighton Argus (5th April 2017): “For most 18 to 21-year-olds life is a big adventure but for those on the streets it can turn into the worst of all nightmares. They have hopes and aspirations but if you are on the streets it is a day to day struggle for survival.”

“Denying 18-21 year olds the right to claim housing benefit is bad, bad news, and bad, bad policy”

Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey

Last week, the Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey, released a written statement to parliament announced the government would be reversing this cruel measure, by changing the  regulations so that it allowed all 18 to 21-year-olds to claim support for housing costs in Universal Credit”.

She said: “Currently, 18 to 21-year-olds who make a new claim to UC (universal credit) in UC full-service areas need to meet certain requirements to receive housing support. The change I am announcing today means that young people on benefits will be assured that if they secure a tenancy, they will have support towards their housing costs in the normal way.”

She said the decision was “in line with the government’s launch of the Homelessness Reduction Act and our commitment to eradicating rough sleeping by 2027.”

I am delighted that the government has seen sense on this one.  In line with its launch of the Homelessness Reduction Act and its commitment to eradicating rough sleeping by 2027, there are plenty of other measures that are contributing to the increase in homelessness.  Perhaps the government would care to look at them, too?

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A good day to bury bad news

Just 21 minutes after Kensington Palace announced the engagement of Prince Harry to Meghan Markle, the Department for Works and Pensions announced that millions of people will have their benefits frozen for a further 12 months at a cost to a typical working family with two children of £300 a year.

State pension and some other benefits will increase by the rate of inflation (3%).

The freeze, which has been in place since 2015, means a real-terms cut in income for millions of people because of rising living costs.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies found benefit entitlements would be lower by an average of £450 per year for over 10 million households affected by 2020.

And how much does a Royal Wedding cost?

Universal Credit is a disgrace, and those who have advocated it and continue to defend it should hang their heads in shame

At first there were warnings that the ambitious plans for Universal Credit were not deliverable. But the government dismissed these warnings. There were warnings that Universal Credit could not be delivered in the way it was planned, but Iain Duncan Smith said, time and time again, that it would be delivered “on time and in budget”. It wasn’t and an IT programme was abandoned at a cost of millions of Pounds.

Universal Credit pilots highlighted the rising levels of rent arrears and the hardship being caused to claimants, but the government pressed on regardless. I have written about Universal Credit on more occasions than I can recall, probably on more occasions than on any other social policy issue or government policy.

Advice agencies warned of the increasing numbers presenting themselves with increasing problems with debt, but these warnings fell on deaf ears in the Department for Work and Pensions and in government.

Landlords warned that they would not be able to accommodated those on Universal Credit, but still these warnings were not headed.

Social and private landlords have highlighted the problem of arrears caused by Universal Credit. BHT’s arrears currently stand at 1% other than for those on Universal Credit where arrears are 15% notwithstanding the work we do with our tenants.

Food banks have said that the increasing demands for their services are being caused by Universal Credit.

News reports, over months and years, have highlights individual cases of hardship and homelessness directly resulting from Universal Credit.

Time and time again, warning after warning, the government carried on regardless.

Last month Citizens Advice produced a compelling case for the roll out of University Credit to be paused but the usual platitudes were repeated.

Then today (29th September) came news that Conservative Members of Parliament have called on their own government to think again about Universal Credit over fears about the impact on claimants already receiving Universal Credit in trial areas.

Later in the day, Dame Louise Casey, who has advised successive governments on a wide range of social policy issues, said that pressing ahead with Universal Credit was like “jumping over a cliff” and that it made her “hair stand on end”.

If the government fails to act now it can only be because it and its ministers are deluded about their own righteousness, cruel in their disregard of evidence of suffering and hardship, or too arrogant to listen to those who see, on a daily basis, the impact of this policy.

This policy is a disgrace, and those who have advocated it and continue to defend it should hang their heads in shame.

Another day, another report on the disaster that is Universal Credit

There is a new report out on the impact of Universal credit on rent arrears. But there is a difference with this one. It is not one of the ‘usual suspects’ – Shelter, Citizens Advice, BHT, etc. – warning the Department for Work and Pensions about the problems being caused by one aspect or another of Universal Credit. No, this one is from Ipsos Mori on behalf of the DWP itself.

It found that of those in arrears, in half the cases the arrears started after they had made their claim for Universal Credit.

Ipsos Mori said that 38% of renters on Universal Credit were in arrears eight weeks after making a claim. This fell to 31% five months after making the claim. 77% said this was the first time they had been arrears in their current accommodation.

When will the DWP finally admit that Universal Credit is an unmitigated failure, and when will they put a halt to this disastrous policy?

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?

It is always worth reading the Guardian’s Patrick Butler on social policy issues

Patrick Butler, from The Guardian, is always worth reading on any social policy issues. An example are these two extracts from his column in Friday’s Guardian (15th September 2017)

The work and pensions select committee has launched an inquiry into universal credit after hearing evidence from landlords, charities and tenants about extensive problems associated with it.

Frank Field, the committee chair, said: “Everything I have seen so far, on the committee and in my constituency, points to fundamental flaws in the operation of universal credit, which must be resolved before the full service roll-out proceeds.”

The Department for Work and Pensions evaluation found that 42% of all claimant families surveyed said the wait for a first universal credit payment to be processed and DWP administrative errors were the cause of their rent arrears.

Four in 10 households were in rent arrears eight weeks after the claim was made, with nearly one in three still in arrears four months later. One in five owed £1,000 or more. Four out of five said they had never been in arrears before.

Half of new claimants needed a DWP loan to help pay for living expenses such as food and gas bills while they waited for a first payment, while nearly one-third borrowed cash from family or friends. About one in 10 took out loans with payday or doorstep lenders.

Universal credit was introduced in 2013 to simplify the social security system by rolling six main benefits into one. However, management failings and IT problems have left it years behind schedule, while budget cuts mean millions of working families moving on to the benefit will be worse off.

Patrick explained the workings of universal Credit:

New universal credit claimants wait a minimum of 42 days for a first payment. This comprises a seven day “waiting period” before a claim can be made, a one-month assessment period to determine how much the claimant should be paid, and a further week for the payment to go through.

In practice, however, charities say many claimants wait even longer for a first payment. People on low incomes often have few or no savings to tide them over during the waiting period, forcing them to turn to debt and food banks.

The DWP has stood by the 42-day wait, arguing that it is needed to get claimants on to a monthly payment schedule, and newly unemployed claimants should expect to have one month’s salary to fall back on. However, charities say one in four workers are not paid monthly, meaning they have to survive for at least six weeks on two weeks’ pay.

Earlier this year, the Trussell Trust reported that food bank referral rates were running at more than double the national average in areas where universal credit had been rolled out. The trust said benefit delays led to debt, mental illness, rent arrears and eviction.

The unfolding disaster that is Universal Credit

My second favourite government department (not), the Department for Work and Pensions, has belatedly published a guidebook to help landlords prepare for the roll out of Universal Credit.

It is rather late in the day because Universal Credit has been rolled out in many parts of the country and is imminently going to arrive in full in Brighton and Hove.

I hope this belated gesture by the DWP is a recognition of the problems being caused by this ill-conceived and badly implemented policy. There was research over the summer that showed that 86% of council tenants in receipt of Universal Credit are now in arrears.

Rather than paying rent directly to tenants in a single, direct monthly payment as is happening under Universal Credit, the DWP could have agreed that the rental component should be paid direct to the landlord. Now that would be a sensible idea and would have reduced the risk of rent arrears. Wait a minute, that’s what has happened until now.  But some bright spark, somewhere in the DWP, who has probably never had a days experience collecting rent for a social or private landlord, thought that paying the rent to tenants rather than landlords would be a good idea.

At BHT we work closely with our tenants and support them to pay their rent.  Rent arrears as at 3rd September were 1.1%.  But amongst those on Universal Credit the level of arrears in just over 15% – in spite of the support we can provide.

Today (13th September 2017) the National Audit Office has said that the 60% increase since 2010/11 in households in temporary and emergency accommodation, and the 134% increase in rough sleeping has “likely been driven” by welfare reform.  The freeze on Local Housing Allowance is, according to the NAO, “likely to have contributed”.

Auditor General Sir Amyas Morse said the Department for Work and Pensions had failed to evaluate the impact of the benefit changes on homelessness.It is difficult to understand why the department persisted with its light touch approach in the face of such a visibly growing problem. Its recent performance in reducing homelessness therefore cannot be considered value for money.”

The consequence of this stupidity was easy for foresee, and experience has proven it to be the case.  Belatedly publishing a guidebook for landlords isn’t going to fix this problem.

(PS my least favourite government department is the Ministry of Justice also known as the Ministry of Injustice or MiniJustice).