About time too: the government backs down over Universal Credit helpline charges

The Prime Minister last week (18/10/17) confirmed today that all charges to the Universal Credit helpline will be ended and that the helpline will be a Freephone number.  About time, too.  The decision to charge the poorest of the poor up to 55p per minute shows what an ugly mind set exists in the Department of Work and Pensions and amongst those Ministers responsible, including those who defended this nasty, mean spirited charge as recently as last week.

Yet the government presses on regardless with the roll out of Universal Credit in spite of all the evidence that exists to show hardship being caused, and the rising level of arrears.

It won’t be long before the government will have to climb down, but the longer they persist and defend this policy, the more humiliating the climb down will be, and Mrs May’s government, as with Mrs Thatcher and the Poll Tax, might leave the climb down too late.

I have posted a Vlog on the politics of Universal Credit (posted before the decision to introduce a Freephone was announced).

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The government shows disdain for the wishes of Parliament on Universal Credit

The National Landlords Association has surveyed its members on their attitude to housing tenants who are on Universal Credit.  80% said they were reluctant to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit or Universal Credit.

Since the government isn’t funding anywhere like enough homes to rent, and since more well-off families are able to take advantage of schemes like Help to Buy, can someone please tell me where will people on Universal Credit live if landlords in the private rented sector won’t house them?

I am writing every day about the unfolding catastrophe that is Universal Credit.  People are left in debt, selling off their possessions to keep the lights on, relying on foodbanks, getting into rent arrears, and becoming homeless.

Today in the House of Commons a vote calling on the government to pause the roll out of Universal  Credit was passed by 299 votes to nil.  The government ordered its Members of Parliament to abstain.

House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow MP

The Speaker, John Bercow, advised ministers to take account of the “clearly expressed” wishes of the House of Commons, and to “show respect for the institution” by indicating what they intend to do.  Don’t hold your breath, Mr Bercow.

The UK parliament is supposed to be the “Mother of all Parliaments” yet the government shows disdain for the institution by ordering its side to abstain and will, in all likelihood, ignore the vote.

This isn’t a democracy.  This smacks of a dictatorship.  My Conservative friends should be hanging their heads in shame at the disrespect to the wishes Parliament and the misery and suffering that Universal Credit is causing.

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?

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).