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Ask 4: CAB funding just isn’t enough…

SFHA, together with its sister UK housing federations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is calling for six changes to be made to Universal Credit in order to improve the whole system for tenants and housing associations. SFHA has invited six guest bloggers to write about one of the #SixAsks. Today, Catherine Louch, Housing Manager, Prospect Community Housing, Edinburgh, explains why, despite the DWP funding CAS to deliver the Help to Claim programme, funding for support and advice services must be increased to make sure people do not miss out on entitlement.

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Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) receives funding from DWP to deliver a ‘Help to Claim’ programme, an excellent choice to deliver a multi-channel service. Our concern is that this approach is limited. Demand for face to face benefit appointments outstrips supply as council cuts have reduced welfare advice services. Waiting for up to three weeks for an appointment is now normal. The concern is, that if an individual does not realise the consequence of not making a claim for Universal Credit (UC) until they have seen their CAS adviser, their wait for first payment will be eight weeks, rather than five.

Secondly, our tenants don’t access centralised services. We learned from a previous Scottish Legal Aid Board funded project delivering welfare reform advice, that there is plenty of demand for services delivered in local, community venues. Our tenants just cannot wait for a three-week appointment which will be a long bus ride away. 

Limiting support to only helping with initial claims is short-sighted and will negatively impact on tenancy sustainment, resulting in increased homelessness; something Edinburgh really doesn’t need. UC recipients do not live happily ever after once they’ve successfully received their first payment; who’s going to help if their mental health dips, if they miss a work coach appointment, or if they’re trying to get their life together after experiencing domestic abuse, possibly ending up being sanctioned and not paying rent? 

As a community-based housing association in Wester Hailes, Edinburgh, we scratched our heads as to how we could best support our tenants to face the challenges of UC. One approach we took was to create a ‘community room’. This bright, welcoming, multipurpose space is home to three computers, a phone, printer, meeting table and sofas. It’s open for tenants to use every morning, with free internet access and digital support from staff, if required, and the meeting space is also used local agencies.

The relaxed atmosphere – compared to the ‘them and us’ imposing feel of an interview room – means that our tenants recognise we are working together to support them. We have regulars who come in to have a quick check of their UC journal and their Facebook pages. We’ve had the initial UC claim which took three-plus hours, the applicant who came in every day for a week until their claim was done, and the tenant who uses the internet on her phone every day but had never used a computer mouse before.

By working with our tenants in this way, we’ve been able to have that rent conversation at the outset, set up appointments with our Welfare Rights Officer to maximise income and make sure that UC is the right benefit to apply for, in the first place.

Whilst the vast majority have internet access, many don’t have the confidence or skills to apply for UC and maintain their journal. Indeed, the DWP reported 46% of people claiming UC online needed some sort of support to complete their claim (Universal Credit Full Service Survey, DWP, June 2018).  This got us thinking about ways we could offer more structured digital support for our tenants, and now we’re searching for funding accordingly.

We wish CAS’s programme well, but we would make a plea for increased funding for more support and advice delivered locally. Registered social landlords know their tenants and work well in partnership to deliver the services and support required to meet local needs. Thus, we support SFHA’s ask for more funding for support, not only to avoid an 8 week initial wait but to ensure long term tenancy viability.

Six Asks:

1. End to the five-week wait for payment. Claimants should be able to get a payment in the middle of this period and there should be greater flexibility on payment frequency for all

2. More data sharing between DWP and social landlords and the restoration of implicit consent (when a claimant allows a person or organisation to help with their Universal Credit claim) will mean landlords can better support tenants and prevent problems. This is key to the success of managed migration.

3. Where benefit is paid direct to the landlord, we need a system that is fit for purpose, with the landlord receiving the payment on the same cycle as the tenant

4. Increased funding for support and advice to make sure people do not miss out on entitlement, including allowing backdating for more claims

5. Making sure that work pays for everyone by matching monthly assessments to earnings within that period, improving work allowances and reducing the taper

6. Restore inflation linked uprating to working age benefits from April 2020