Local government Leading Lights discuss Universal Credit rollout at the House of Lords

Policy in Practice hosted an event at the House of Lords for leading practitioners in the field of welfare policy to discuss constructive ways to improve Universal Credit rollout, directly with the DWP. Deven Ghelani outlines what happened next.

Leading practitioners discuss how to improve Universal Credit implementation with the DWP at the House of Lords.

Last month, Policy in Practice brought leading welfare practitioners together with the DWP at the House of Lords to discuss constructive ways to improve the implementation of Universal Credit.

Hosted by Lord Kirkwood of Kirkhope, the event featured local government guest speakers Mark Fowler and Jayne Raper from Croydon Council together with Lara Sampson, Universal Credit product owner for DWP.

The event invited experienced people from housing associations, third sector organisations and local authorities to share their own frontline experiences of Universal Credit. Many also brought ideas for what needs to change to better support people, and ensuring successful delivery of the policy.

Feedback from the event, together with options analysis by Policy in Practice, has been consolidated into a briefing options paper for DWP and discussed with senior officials at the DWP. They welcomed the issues raised by practitioners, and the constructive options put forward to resolve them. These options are now under consideration ahead of the Autumn Budget 2017.

Revisiting the core principles of Universal Credit

Universal Credit is intended to simplify the benefit system, making it easier for people to understand and more efficient for government to administer. It’s designed to smooth the transition into and out of work by creating clear work incentives. It is also intended to promote behavioural change and self reliance. Where possible it aims to encourage people to enter or re-enter the labour market, and progress in work.

Introducing a major reform to the benefit system, while simultaneously making cuts to working age welfare, was always going to pose challenges. Having been founded by one of the architects of Universal Credit, Policy in Practice works constructively to ensure it is implemented as successfully as possible, and works to ensure it delivers on the original policy intent. 

There is general consensus that the underlying principles behind Universal Credit are sound and that the attempt to bring together six separate benefits is a worthwhile idea. However, a bad romance between the DWP and the Treasury led to a disconnect between the aims of Universal Credit, and an otherwise austerity driven welfare reform programme. Investing in Universal Credit should be a priority for the chancellor in this months budget.

It is not surprising that innovation of such complexity presents real challenges for all involved in the implementation of Universal Credit: for DWP, for local organisations and interest groups, for landlords and, most importantly, for the recipients themselves.

There are other opportunities to improve the system, many of which can be delivered at low or no cost, that seem obvious to the frontline advisors who work with the system every day. Finding ideas that can resolve issues is an important part of test and learn, and making sure these suggestions are heard, considered and implemented will help to make the welfare system simple, rewarding and effective.

Talk that leads to action

Policy in Practice was keen to ensure that the event has an impact. We recognise that the DWP and local organisations are all working toward the same goal; this was the enabling theme of the event and one of the core reasons DWP were involved from the outset.

Perhaps the worst example of current disconnect between the aims of Universal Credit and an otherwise austerity driven welfare reform programme is the waiting period for customers’ first Universal Credit payment, known as the six-week wait. With backbench pressure to reduce the six-week wait, and the Autumn budget on 22 November, the event was very timely.

Our event attracted the attention of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, who subsequently funded an options paper looking at how the government can best fix this, while still delivering on the policy intent of Universal Credit.

In the options paper we compare the Universal Credit advance to alternative options, taking into account the cost and administrative implications of each, and propose a range of proposals that practitioners believe would improve people’s experiences of Universal Credit on the frontline.

Better policy evolves from frontline feedback

DWP are currently rolling out Universal Credit full service which involves taking new claims from all claimants, not just straightforward claims as previously. About 8% of the roll-out has taken place so far and the intention is that every Jobcentre will be live with full service by the end of 2018.

Alongside options to eliminate the six-week wait, frontline advisors made clear a number of operational issues with Universal Credit, together with a range of constructive suggestions to improve Universal Credit. The topics raised by advisors, with options to consider, include:

  • Allow backdating of Universal Credit for one month prior to the start of the claim under a broader set of circumstances
  • Take account of a changes in circumstances from the date they occur, to deliver savings alongside more accurate and fairer awards of benefit
  • Assess income over a longer period for the self-employed before applying the minimum income floor, to ensure parity between employed and self-employed claimants
  • Set the standard repayment period for an advance payment to 12 months, and clearly explaining deductions via claimant’s journals, to help claimants already in debt
  • Amend the DHP regulations so that they can be paid when there is good reason to believe that the housing element of Universal Credit will be paid in the near future
  • Outlaw the practice of placing restrictions on buy to let mortgages that discriminate against tenants in receipt of any type of benefits, including Universal Credit
  • Take claimants in short-term temporary accommodation out of Universal Credit until their situation stabilises
  • Allow a specific amount of time within the claimant commitment for the verification, and self-management of the claim, and for basic skills development
  • Allow claimants to submit all claim verification online, and accepting photocopies as substitutes for originals wherever possible
  • Monitor the earnings of claimants who come off Universal Credit, ideally triggering an automatic Universal Credit payment if earnings fall

The briefing paper contains costed options to tackle the six-week wait, together with a dozen simple recommendations to help the rollout of Universal Credit on the ground. Discussions with the ministerial team are currently ongoing, ahead of the budget, and the range of constructive suggestions, coming directly from frontline advisors, have been welcomed by DWP. 

The recommendations have been built upon through analysis by Policy in Practice, to help inform the debate and ensure that Universal Credit deliver on its policy intent. At the time of writing we are confident at least some of these options will be taken on board and we look forward to sharing the full details in due course.

Request the briefing paper and share your views by emailing hello@policyinpractice.co.uk.

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