Universal Credit – “forcing many into debt”

Jul 07 Dealing With Debt - Magnifying Glass

By Heather Cameron

“The biggest change ever made to the benefits system… is currently failing too many people and forcing many into debt.”

This is the conclusion of a new report from Citizens Advice on Universal Credit (UC). It warns that the roll-out should be paused to allow ‘significant problems’ to be fixed.

What is Universal Credit?

UC was introduced in 2013, with the aim of simplifying the benefits system, making transitions into work easier and making every hour of work pay. UC replaces six means-tested benefits and tax credits with one benefit, to be paid in arrears, as a single household payment, on a monthly basis.

The objective of UC is to help people on low incomes or not in work to meet their living costs. It affects a range of people, both employed and unemployed, disabled people with health conditions, single people, families, homeowners and renters.

Roll-out so far has been gradual but the process is to speed up considerably from October. By the end of roll-out in 2022, it is expected around 7.2 million households will receive UC, over half of which will be in work.

With such a significant number of people affected, it is imperative that the system works in their interests. But evidence from Citizens Advice suggests the system has a number of flaws that need addressing to prevent 7 million households from facing serious financial risk.

And this isn’t the first time similar conclusions have been reached.

Flaws

Back in February, a Guardian investigation found that policy design flaws in UC are pushing thousands of benefit claimants into debt. Former welfare minister Lord Freud also admitted to MPs that administrative problems and design issues with UC are causing around one in four low-income tenants to run up rent arrears, putting them at risk of eviction.

In 2016, an inquiry into UC and its implementation by the Public Accounts Committee highlighted the inflexibility of the payment systems which may cause financial hardship for some claimants.

Citizens Advice highlight three “significant problems” with UC:

  • people are waiting up to 12 weeks for their first payment without any income;
  • UC is too complicated and people are struggling to use it; and
  • people aren’t getting help when the system fails them.

The data shows that:

  • more than one in three people helped on UC by Citizens Advice are waiting more than six weeks to receive any income, with 11% waiting over 10 weeks;
  • nearly a third of people helped have to make more than 10 calls to the helpline to sort out their claim;
  • 40% of people helped said they were not aware they could get an advance payment to help with the initial waiting period for their first payment;
  • over half of the people helped borrowed money while waiting for their first payment; and
  • UC clients are nearly one-and-a-half times as likely to seek advice on debt issues as those on other benefits.

A recent report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation similarly highlighted the issue of waiting time, arguing that it required immediate action.

While Citizens Advice support the principles of UC, it argues that pushing ahead with roll-out while these problems remain will only put thousands more families at financial risk.

Recommendations

In response to these findings, a number of short and longer term considerations were highlighted where action will be needed to help secure the aims of UC by the end of roll-out. These include reducing the six week wait for initial payment, improving the support available for those moving onto UC, and helping people achieve financial stability on UC.

The charity recommends that the roll-out is paused while the government addresses the significant issues that have been highlighted. If improvements are not made, it is argued that both UC claimants and the government will face significant financial risks, which will increase rapidly if thousands more households move onto the benefit later this year.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also like our previous article on in-work poverty.

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Budget 2016 – 5 messages for local government

One pound coin on fluctuating graph. Rate of the pound sterling

By Heather Cameron

Last week George Osborne revealed the details of his 2016 Budget, at the centre of which was a major deterioration of the forecast for productivity growth. Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projected an average growth in productivity per hour of 1.9% between 2015-16 and 2020-21; that average is now 1.7%.

As a result, a further £3.5 billion of savings from public spending is to be found in 2019/20. While Osborne has suggested these savings are equivalent to 50p in every £100 the government spends, experts have warned that the figure is closer to £2 or £3 for services that haven’t been protected.

What does it mean for local government?

Despite no direct cuts for local government, it remains unclear where these savings will come from. And with ring fencing of much public spending, local government may yet again bear the brunt of these cuts one way or another.

Business rates

Concerns have been raised over the announcement to extend business rate relief, the revenue from which is 50% retained by councils. It was revealed that this will remove £7 billion from the total take in England over the next five years; 600,000 small businesses will pay no rates at all from next year.

While good news for small businesses, there are fears it could leave a huge hole in local government finances as all locally raised business rates are to be fully devolved by the end of 2020. This will be accompanied by the phasing out of central government grants, and the devolution of additional spending responsibilities.

The government says that “local government will be compensated for the loss of income as a result … and the impact considered as part of the government’s consultation on the implementation of 100% business rate retention in summer 2016.”

But details of how such compensation will work remain unknown. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has suggested that the government’s plans for reimbursing local government is “nigh on impossible”.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), if protection for council budgets isn’t extended to beyond the devolution of business rates, councils stand to lose £1.9bn per year, or 2.9% of their total revenues.

Benefits cuts

Further cuts to welfare spending could also have a knock-on effect. The Chancellor outlined controversial plans to reform Personal Independent Payments (PIP) for disabled people, to save £1.3 billion. Overall, £4.4 billion will be cut from benefits for disabled people over the course of the parliament.

The cuts to PIP have been described as ‘devastating’ for disabled people, with many relying on them to live independently. They could therefore lead to increasing pressure on already stretched local services.

Even the government’s own party members criticised these cuts, which have since led to the shock resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and a government U-turn on the reforms to PIP, which will now not go ahead.

But there is no alternative plan to fill the hole left by this U-turn so local government may still need to brace themselves for cuts elsewhere.

Education

Under the education reforms, every state school in England is to become an academy by 2020 or have a plan in place to do so by 2022, ending the century-old role of local authorities as providers of education.

But, as our recent blog has highlighted, there are ongoing concerns over the academy programme with little evidence to justify it.

The plans have been criticised by councils and teaching unions. Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) children and young people board, said:

We have serious concerns that regional schools commissioners still lack the capacity and local knowledge to have oversight of such a large, diverse and remote range of schools.”

Ofsted rated 82% of council maintained schools as good or outstanding, while the results of recent HMI inspections of academies has been described as “worrying”. The findings also highlighted a “poor use of public money”, something that has been reiterated by the LGA.

In response, the LGA noted that “councils have been forced to spend millions of pounds to cover the cost of schools becoming academies in recent years”.

Devolution deals

There was some better news for local government in the form of new devolution deals with the West of England, East Anglia, and Greater Lincolnshire. The West of England and East Anglia will each receive a £900 million investment fund over 30 years to boost economic growth, while Greater Lincolnshire’s deal is worth £450 million.

New powers over the criminal justice system are also to be transferred to Greater Manchester and business rates are to be fully devolved to the Greater London Authority next year, 3 years before everyone else.

The LGA welcomes these deals as recognition of the economic potential of all local areas and calls for a return to the early momentum in which similar deals were announced last year.

Flood defences

Another positive for local government was the £700 million funding boost for flood defences by 2020-21, including projects in York, Leeds, Calder Valley, Carlisle and across Cumbria, to be funded by a 0.5% increase in the standard rate of Insurance Premium Tax.

Considering the extent of recent winter flooding, this was welcomed by local government as a “step in the right direction”.

However, the LGA has stated that councils will need further help from government once the full cost of recent damage emerges. It has also called for flood defence funding to be devolved to local areas so the money can be spent on where it is really needed.

Final thoughts

So despite no direct cuts for local government, and the welcome boost to local economies and flood defences, it remains to be seen whether local government will lose out financially in the longer term.


Read our related blog on the total academisation of schools.

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Basic Income – a simple solution to a complex problem?

By Heather Cameron

If you want to incentivise work at every level of income then Basic Income is simply the best system.” (RSA, 2015)

Last month MPs in the UK Parliament were asked to consider the question of introducing a universal basic income to be payable unconditionally to all citizens without means-testing or work requirement.

The motion, which was tabled by Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, says the policy “has the potential to offer genuine social security to all while boosting entrepreneurialism”.

While no vote was taken on the policy, and it is unlikely to be made law any time soon, the motion raised the profile of the issue by enabling MPs to add their name in support.

And with ever increasing global interest in the idea, and basic income pilots set to spring into action all over Europe this year, perhaps it’s not as far away from becoming a reality in the UK as we may think.

Pilots

A number of cities and countries across Europe have committed to trialling a basic income.

Last year Finland announced a national basic income experiment, scheduled to start in 2017, which will be the EU’s first nation-wide project. It will see up to 100,000 Finnish citizens paid an unconditional income for a period of two years, after which the results will be analysed to see whether it should be rolled out nationally.

Trials have also begun in the Netherlands. The Dutch city of Utrecht will pay a small group of benefits claimants, whether they work or not, a basic income of £660 a month to provide a basic standard of living and help them avoid the ‘poverty trap’.

In Switzerland, a national referendum on a basic income is planned for this year, and support for the idea has also been reported in France and Canada.

While it is too early to tell whether these pilots will have the desired positive effect, the concept of a basic income is far from new and there have been signs of success from past experiments.

Positive outcomes

In the 1970s, a basic income social experiment, ‘Mincome’, was carried out in the Canadian town of Dauphin, which involved making payments to the entire population, relative to income to cover basic living costs. The programme succeeded in reducing poverty, improving health and alleviating other urban problems.

More recent basic income projects in developing countries have also helped alleviate poverty. In Namibia, a coalition of aid organisations trialled a basic income, funded through tax revenues, of 100 Namibian dollars to each citizen. The result: crime was reduced, children attended school and many villagers used the money to fund micro-enterprises. Meanwhile, in Uganda, a similar programme increased business assets by 57%, work hours by 17% and earnings by 38%.

Critics of such a system say that it would cost the state too much money, and would lead to welfare dependency and a reluctance to work, ultimately resulting in higher unemployment.

A recent survey undertaken in Switzerland would seem to refute this. It indicates that only a very small proportion of the population would stop working if they had a basic income and a majority believe that it would “relieve people from existential fears.”

Similarly, the Canadian experiment found no substantial difference in either female or male unemployment. There were changes in the labour market, as would be expected, with a reduction in working hours within families as a whole. Female spouses reduced their working hours to spend more time with children; and hours were reduced for adolescents within the family who entered the workforce later, suggesting that they were able to stay in education longer.

Way forward for the UK?

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) has recently concluded that there is a strong practical case for basic income in the UK to replace the current tax and benefits system – “it underpins security, replaces the complexity of the current system, and provides a platform for freedom and creativity.”

The RSA report sets out a potential basic income model for the UK. It would provide a universal payment to every citizen, (with restrictions for migrants and those serving custodial sentences). A ‘basic’ amount paid to everyone of working age would provide incentives to work, therefore mitigating against low pay traps of the current system. It would also, the RSA report claims, mitigate against some of the negative distributive effects of basic income schemes by redistributing from higher earners to families with children.

The report calculates household income, comparing the proposed model with the current system of likely Universal Credit/National Living Wage income for 2020/21. In all instances, ranging from single parent families with children under or over five to couples with children under or over five, there was a gain for household income under the basic income model.

With the current welfare system and all its complexity, the new Universal Credit apparently not doing what it’s supposed to and the continued increase in job automation, is this really just a simple solution to a complex problem?

Perhaps by the end of 2016, there will be more evidence for the UK to seriously consider.


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Universal Credit and housing benefit: facing up to the challenge of change

by James Carson

English money

How are housing associations and their tenants preparing for Universal Credit?  It’s one of the big questions at the heart of the coalition government’s reform of the benefits system. Until recently, the answer was unclear, but we’re now starting to get a better picture of the likely impact of benefits reform on social housing.

In 2010, the coalition government embarked on a major programme of changes to the welfare system. The staged roll-out is intended to simplify the system, replacing five different benefits with a single payment, known as Universal Credit. One of the major changes will see social tenants who previously had their housing benefit paid to their landlord receiving a single monthly payment.

Right from the start, there have been concerns that tenants will have difficulties managing direct payments, and that rising numbers will struggle to pay their rents. Initially, it was difficult to assess whether these concerns were valid, but last month the Department for Work and Pensions published a package of reports evaluating a series of demonstration projects testing the direct payment of housing benefit to tenants living in social housing.

Continue reading

Corporate social responsibility woven into everything we do at Riverside

Ronnie Clawson head shot

We’ll be looking at housing and particularly the work of housing associations over the next couple of weeks. In our first blog of three on the theme Ronnie Clawson from Riverside talks about Corporate Social Responsibility and how integral it is to Riverside’s business.

By Ronnie Clawson, Executive Director of Corporate Services, Riverside

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) sits at the core of Riverside’s purpose as a housing charity and is integral to our business. It strengthens our reputation as a responsible, ethical organisation and provides an opportunity for deeper and more meaningful engagement with our employees. CSR also allows best practice to be shared through peer-groups, such as the Sustainable Homes Index for Tomorrow (SHIFT) and other like-minded organisations outside the social housing sector like Business in The Community, Seddons (construction and maintenance specialists), and Liverpool Echo Arena. Continue reading