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Ask 2: DWP must restore implicit consent

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, Rhona Penman, Advice Services Co-ordinator, Link Group, explains why implicit consent should be restored.

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“DWP recognises the huge support that customer representative organisations provide to its customers and claimants. There are times when these organisations need to contact the department to get specific information about a customer that will help with the support they give them. DWP follows a principle of ‘implicit consent’, and DWP staff have recently been reminded about this principle.”

This quote from the DWP demonstrates its understanding that customers require support from organisations to make and maintain their claims effectively. Why then, does this not appear to be the case for Universal Credit (UC), given the radically different knowledge and skills the DWP expects of claimants?

I’m responsible for the delivery of advice services to social housing tenants across 23 local authority areas. Many of our clients access our services due to vulnerability and require assistance with the most basic of benefit-related matters.

We mainly work remotely from our clients and rely on the ability to act on their behalf. Our inability to do this for UC clients is extremely challenging and causes delays in information exchange, payments and, ultimately, the risk of sanctions.

I have numerous examples where a client has forgotten their password or can’t access their journal due to lack of skill, hardware and/or broadband. They suffer from debilitating issues, such as drug and alcohol dependency, mental ill health, or learning disabilities, so are unable to leave their home to seek support.

Whilst we offer a home visiting service, our limited resources and the geographical area we cover means we are unable to carry out multiple visits to clients. With other benefits, we ask clients to sign a mandate during our initial visit. This permits our staff to make enquiries and resolve issues quickly and easily with DWP on our client’s behalf. With UC, our only option is to revisit the client every time they have an issue, which is simply not sustainable and definitely not up-scalable as UC numbers increase.

As well as being detrimental to our ability to deliver efficient services and causing problems for our clients, we are aware that lack of implicit consent makes matters more complicated and time consuming for DWP staff, too.

An experienced welfare rights officer can speak with knowledge and understanding of UC with the work coach or case manager, succinctly explaining issues and imparting relevant information much more efficiently than a vulnerable client.

We find that there are often misunderstandings between DWP staff and customers which leads to confusion. This again leads to delays in payment, potential over or underpayments and the risk of sanctions. Our staff communicating with the DWP would result in efficiencies within the DWP, too, improving both claims and change of circumstances processing times.

I would urge the DWP to reconsider implicit consent for UC prior to the roll-out of managed migration – at which time it is expected large numbers of vulnerable claimants will be required to claim.

Given that the DWP already has a large network of trusted partners using the Landlord Portal and Change Director Neil Couling is keen to utilise the social housing sector in supporting claimants through the migration process, it seems an easy and prudent ask.

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