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Jury is out on whether new Universal Credit measures solve its problems

By Jeremy Hewer, Policy Advisor, SFHA 

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The most significant element of the UK Government’s Autumn Budget was the announcement of a £1.5 billion funding package to address issues with the delivery of Universal Credit, including the scrapping of the seven-day waiting period from February 2018. While the SFHA cautiously welcomes this, the issue, as always, will be whether the problems we have identified are actually addressed.

The Chancellor did not use the Budget as an opportunity to announce that he was halting the roll-out of Universal Credit but, instead, a ‘slow-down’, with completion deferred from September 2018 to December 2018. It is still the SFHA’s belief that there needs to be a pause in the roll-out until the DWP can give reassurances that its processes are firmly embedded and working as they should. The feedback from our monthly members’ survey, and the testimony of claimants at a Universal Credit summit in Inverness, organised by Drew Hendry MP, indicate that these processes are currently anything but robust and reliable.

While we have long been arguing for the seven-day wait to be scrapped, and its removal from February 2018 was announced in the Budget, the following day, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions David Gauke gave further detail in his statement. In reality, what this means is that the waiting time for payment is only being reduced from six weeks to five, which will still leave the majority of Universal Credit claimants, who have been used to weekly or fortnightly paid employment or have been surviving on legacy benefits, struggling to manage while they get used to a monthly payment routine. It should also be noted that thousands of new claimants between now and the end of January will not benefit from this concession.

Further new measures include extending the repayment of advances from six to 12 months, and allowing people to receive 100% of their payment upfront from January 2018 – people who make a claim in December can get a 50% advance, and, in January, they can ask for a top up to 100%.

Mr Hammond also announced:

  • from spring 2018, it will be possible for people to apply for advances online
  • from April 2018 an additional two weeks’ of housing costs will be paid after the end of someone’s Housing Benefit claim and into their Universal Credit claim
  • it will be “made easier” for claimants to continue having their housing costs paid directly to landlords once they are on Universal Credit.

The announcements will do little to ease the burden on those who are already in debt and facing real financial hardship due to Universal Credit or to those who will move on to it before the new measures come into play. We also hope that the political announcement has not been made without robust and considered procedures having been put in place to implement the changes.

None of these changes address the core issue of the denial of data sharing that would enable housing associations and co-operatives to support their tenants and manage rent income. The absence of implicit consent seriously undermines mitigation measures such as managed payments to landlords and Scottish Universal Credit choices.

We will need to monitor how these new measures work in reality and whether they actually address Universal Credit’s current devastating effects. The SFHA has been issuing a monthly Universal Credit survey and gathering case study evidence on the effects of the policy so far, and we will continue to do this. We therefore urge you to keep sending us your information until we can see that the policy no longer has detrimental consequences. If need be, we will campaign for further change.

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