'Much work remains to be done before full Universal Credit rollout', says CIH Scotland
In this new opinion piece, featured in the Herald Scotland, CIH Scotland deputy director Callum Chomczuk highlights a number of concerns from the sector as we look towards full Universal Credit rollout.
The roll out of Universal Credit has again been at the centre of the news with the announcement that a terminally ill man has taken the government to court, after claiming the programme left him too poor to travel for chemotherapy.
Universal Credit was intended to simplify welfare - replacing different benefits like jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit with a single monthly payment and boosting incentives to work. The aim remains laudable but it is clear that a number of significant issues with implementation of the system need to be addressed before the roll out is completed this year.
As a priority CIH Scotland and its members want to see further attempts to reduce the wait for a first payment. The measures announced in the Budget last year, including the removal of the seven day waiting period, changes to advanced payments and the introduction of a two-week ‘run-on’ for existing housing benefit claims are welcome.
However in the longer term, this still leaves people with a five-week wait for their first payment which will remain problematic for many claimants. We want the DWP to address the long wait for a first payment on a more permanent basis. Maintaining the principle that Universal Credit is a benefit which is paid in a similar manner to a salary could be achieved by shortening claimants’ initial assessment period.
There has also been difficulty in arranging rent payments directly to landlords in a timely manner. This has meant some landlords have faced a four week wait for rent on top of the time it takes to process the claim, causing a build up of rent arrears and putting tenants at greater risk of eviction. Landlords need clarity about when they will receive their payments so that tenants are not put at risk of homelessness.
Another concern is that the lack of data sharing between the DWP and landlords has made it more challenging for Scottish local authorities to identify tenants who have been affected by the ‘bedroom tax’. Currently those who are entitled to mitigation receive a Discretionary Housing Payment and have the process managed by the local authority, however the move to Universal Credit will mean councils need relevant information on housing costs from the DWP to ensure mitigation of the ‘tax’. To process to date suggests ongoing mitigation could be challenging once the roll out is complete.
Further, up to five per cent of Universal Credit claimants are subject to a sanction at any given time, with more than half of these lasting five weeks or more. Sanctions are leaving many reliant on foodbanks and pushing them into rent arrears, and for some into homelessness. But with a high proportion of sanctions overturned upon appeal, it is clear that rules are being applied too rigidly and failing to take individual circumstances into account in many cases. We want the DWP to carry out a full review immediately.
Finally we have always supported the principle that Universal Credit claimants should always be better off in work and that as they earn more, they should keep more of that money. And yet the reductions to work allowances, announced in 2015, have reduced Universal Credit awards overall and weakened work incentives for many households.
Universal Credit is supposed to be about simplifying welfare and supporting people into work. However, the feedback from our members shows that most of those affected are simply not able to move into employment right now. Yet many will be facing very large drops in income and, unless the UK Government is prepared to change the policy, the consequences could be severe.
*This article appeared in the Herald Scotland on 19 May 2018.