I firmly believe that Universal Credit can be made to work effectively for everyone who needs it. It can work not only for those people who are ready and able to get a job but also for those who are not so close to the labour market, and who need a lot of help and support. In fact, I think we owe it to the growing number of people who receive Universal Credit to make it work better for them. Of course, it will need imagination, goodwill, and more money to make this happen.
But if the latest predictions of a further delay in the Universal Credit roll-out schedule are correct, there is a great opportunity for DWP in particular to rise to the challenge.
My views about Universal Credit have been strengthened by my involvement in a Policy in Practice project to look at making Universal Credit work better for residents in supported housing. Supported housing such as hostels, refuges and sheltered housing is, of course, vital for many people. People are at their most vulnerable when they lack a support network of family and friends, particularly when there is a crisis in their lives. So providing accommodation which is safe and supportive, whether long-stay or short-stay, can make all the difference.
Most residents in supported housing receive Housing Benefit to cover their rent, and the Government recently confirmed that this arrangement will continue for the foreseeable future. But as roll-out progresses, residents increasingly have to claim Universal Credit for their personal needs, and so it is very important that they are able to navigate the claim process successfully. The four housing providers who commissioned our report wanted to know how residents were managing currently with their Universal Credit claims, and what improvements could be made.
To find out what was happening on the ground, we undertook a qualitative survey covering residents, support workers and some Jobcentre Plus work coaches. We found that residents often had problems with a variety of issues such as understanding a complex system, dealing with computers, communicating with Jobcentre Plus, establishing identity, accessing a bank account, and managing their finances. Of course, these issues are not unique to residents of supported housing, they apply to a lesser or greater extent to many people in mainstream housing. But residents in supported housing can often feel particularly threatened and bewildered by what appears to them as a mysterious and unresponsive system, and they can sometimes lack the resilience to find a way through it.
Our proposed solutions start with closer partnership-working so that residents have better access to the information and help that they need. Building on what DWP have already started with the trusted partner initiative, there is now a great opportunity for supported housing providers to help residents manage their online claim, with easier arrangements for residents to give the necessary consent to support workers to have time-limited access to their online journals.
The online journal would become a far better two-way information flow to include: an explanation of awards and deductions, required claimant actions and responses, and information about vulnerabilities and barriers to work. In exchange for enhanced trusted partner status, with much better communication channels, supported housing providers would be able to remove some of the administrative burdens currently faced by the DWP, actively supporting residents to adapt to Universal Credit’s requirements. This would surely be a win-win for all concerned.
But closer partnership-working in itself won’t provide all the answers. It has to be backed by concrete administrative improvements to help make life easier for residents. Our report makes a number of proposals but here I pick out four in particular:
Despite the pressures on departmental budgets, more investment needs to be made in the administration of Universal Credit, with published standards of service at least as good as for legacy benefits. The helpline should be first-class, and work-coach champions for issues such as addiction, homelessness, domestic violence, should be fully trained and funded, as well as more consistently accessible.
- The process for establishing identity should be streamlined, and clear guidance published when claimants cannot manage the IT solution. DWP should for pay for any verification required where there is a cost and, once identity is established, it would be a great idea for DWP to issue an identity certificate to residents which could be used for other purposes. That would certainly be a positive way of making Universal Credit work in practice.
- Obtaining a basic bank account is still a problem for many residents of supported housing. Post office accounts could be publicised better in the short-term, but we suggest working with the banking industry to create more easily accessible basic bank accounts, and publishing national guidelines on banks that provide them. It would also be helpful to have clear guidance setting out how to obtain an account including a model application form agreed with the banks.
- Finally, there has been a lot of comment recently about the high levels of deductions from Universal Credit, particularly when recipients have an advance payment to repay. Often residents will already be in debt and may, for example, be repaying overpayments of benefit. So to help with the growing problem of debt, we suggest setting the maximum level of third-party deductions on an individual basis, taking account of other debts and pressures on the resident.
I feel very privileged to have been part of a project that really could help improve people’s lives. And it has been very rewarding to work with organisations that actively want to help make Universal Credit work. Obviously, I can’t be sure that DWP will accept these proposals but I certainly hope they look at them very carefully. Everyone wants Universal Credit to work more effectively. Now is the ideal time to pause for reflection and establish new ways of working with partners. I urge DWP to seize the moment.