Crisis of confidence in Universal Credit

Yesterday’s Parliamentary double-header on Universal Credit amounted to the biggest challenge to the Government’s flagship “welfare reform” so far.  First, the Work & Pensions Secretary, David Gauke MP, and his officials were given an early-morning grilling by the Work & Pensions select committee.  After a brief respite during Prime Ministers Questions, when Mrs May took the flak herself, Mr Gauke was back under sustained fire during an Opposition Day Debate calling for the “roll-out” to be paused.  Under threat of widespread rebellion from its own ranks, Government Whips went for a collective abstention – handing victory to the Opposition parties.

 

Citizens Advice’s intervention over the summer, when it published evidence of the scale of the problems UC claimants were experiencing and began calling for the roll-out to be “paused” has triggered a wave of horror stories in the media over the past month.  Perhaps most powerfully, the BBC has finally begun to expose the reality of UC for claimants – long delays in payments arising both by design and from their sheer administrative complexity have left thousands of families without enough money to feed their children, and left tenants in arrears and threatened with eviction.

 

UC “full service” hasn’t yet been rolled out to Westminster, where the majority of Z2K’s clients live.  But we have seen enough of the problems from the relatively small number of cases we have had so far to share the concerns that others have raised. Child Poverty Action Group, The Trussell Trust and others have long expressed concerns about the systemic problems which are undermining UC and leaving some of the nation’s most vulnerable people at risk of destitution.  The Government’s concession yesterday that the hotline will now be free of charge simply doesn’t go anywhere near enough to address those issues.

 

In particular, it is clear that the built-in delay of at least six weeks before the first payment is causing untold misery for claimants.  DWP’s claim that its Advance Payments deals with the issue flies in the face of the evidence from those parts of the country at full service already.  At best, the system of Advance Payments is a postcode lottery.  At worst, it is probably a shambles nationwide.  Z2K thinks that, as a very minimum, DWP need to move to a system of payment four weeks in arrears before full service roll-out is extended further.

 

These delays are also clearly the cause of the significant increase in rent arrears amongst UC tenants.  The Director General of Universal Credit tried to persuade the committee yesterday that no-one was being evicted because judges would say social landlords hadn’t followed the pre-action protocol.  This might be true, but as has been shown at length with the Bedroom Tax, it certainly doesn’t stop some social landlords threatening tenants with eviction and causing them unnecessary stress and anxiety or even to borrow to pay off the “arrears”.  And his argument has barely any relevance at all to tenants of private landlords.  We also question DWP’s insistence that tenants themselves must handle the money.

 

It was pretty clear yesterday morning that Conservative MPs like Heidi Allen and Chris Green were expecting the Secretary of State to come up with much more substantive changes, and he was pressed very strongly on each of these points.  The Government has used the tactic of abstaining in Opposition Day motions before, and so, given the lack of a majority for these kind of votes, it wasn’t a complete surprise to see it used this time.  But even so, it signals further concessions will have to be made – including possibly a longer “firebreak” pause than the month currently planned in January.  That would benefit our clients in Westminster who are currently scheduled to be subject to full service roll-out in February.  But its bullishness yesterday in deciding to plough ahead for the moment, might well come back and bite the Government if it leaves families penniless this Christmas.

NextDoor Project – Five Years On

 

Z2K’s NextDoor Project was launched in July 2012, anticipating a surge in demand for decent, affordable housing in the private rented sector, a direct consequence of the Coalition Government’s “austerity measures”.

One of the first of the cuts to be announced was a reduction in Local Housing Allowance Rates of Housing Benefit in the private rented sector.  This had the effect of greatly constricting the supply of properties that low-income renters could afford; with the result that many quickly fell into arrears and ended up being evicted.

Some families, and a few individuals in priority need, have the right to housing from their local authority.  Many more apply but are refused; savage cuts to local authority budgets have resulted in homelessness regulations and guidelines being interpreted more rigorously than ever before.

Increasingly, families who are “owed a duty” are offered accommodation outside London, cruelly severing ties with family, friends and support networks; a process dubbed “social cleansing” by more than one commentator.  Refusing an offer of accommodation from the local authority is frequently classed as “intentional homelessness” further support is seldom, if ever, offered.

Year on year, since 2010, outreach workers have reported a sharp rise in the numbers of people spotted sleeping rough.  In Westminster, between April 2016 and June this year, 909 people were logged as street homeless in official statistics.

These figures do not include the “hidden homeless” – those who have nowhere to live but do not qualify for, or are refused, formal housing assistance and end up “sofa surfing” in friend’s homes, or paying exorbitant rates for dormitory accommodation in cheap hotels.  The exact numbers in this category will never be known for certain, but in 2017 the charity Crisis estimated that there were over three million homeless adults “concealed” within households in England.

The aim of the NextDoor project was that we would help families who had been denied statutory assistance to transition as painlessly as possible into decent affordable accommodation.  To achieve this, we developed relationships with a few select private landlords, and were able to help a significant number of families in this way.  As the scheme grew, we began to receive a steady trickle of referrals from day-centres, night shelters and supported hostels in Westminster, all of whom specialised in service provision for rough sleepers.  Z2K was able to secure a month’s rent in advance from Westminster and offer a guaranteed deposit.

From November 2012, new powers under the Localism Act meant that for the first time local authorities were allowed to discharge their housing duty into the private rented sector.  Many London boroughs enthusiastically seized the opportunity to cut housing waiting lists, offering “incentives” to Private Landlords of up to £6,000 for housing a three or four person family.  We could not, and would not compete with these “incentives” which although legal are, in our opinion, a misuse of public funds.

As the project evolved so the emphasis changed; we do still assist families in finding accommodation, but the main thrust of our work is now directed towards helping single people, both rough sleepers and the hidden homeless (many of whom also sleep rough, intermittently).  In total, we have now helped nearly 300 people into a private tenancy.

Early in 2013, on the cusp of these changes, I attended a conference for homelessness practitioners organised by Shelter; during the lunch break I fell into conversation with a reconnection worker who had many years of experience working with rough sleepers.  His job title was Personal Navigator, a nomenclature which at the time I thought somewhat opaque, although he certainly knew what he was about.

Five years on, and the steady trickle of NFA’s (persons of no fixed abode) referred to our service threatens to become a deluge and I have learnt much from that most brutal but effective of teachers, experience; and now see that personal navigators is indeed what we are.

Over the coming weeks and month’s we’ll be posting reports on the work that we have done and continue to do. We shall look back at notable moments from the last five years, talk honestly about frustrations and failures; revisit old friends to see how they are getting along, post bulletins about ongoing cases as we continue to help vulnerable individuals navigate the maze of bureaucracy, gatekeeping and the paucity of adequate service provision.

All of the above will attempt to convey the incredible tenacity and resilience we see every day from our clientele, and will endeavour to shine a spotlight onto the iniquities created by a flawed and mean-spirited government policy that is driving so many thousands into destitution; clinging onto hope by their fingernails.

Campaign for Council Tax Support goes to Labour Party Conference

Arriving at my first party conference, I was full of questions. Would our event run to plan, would the room be ready, would the speakers be any good and, most importantly of all, would anyone actually turn up to hear them?

Council tax doesn’t tend to draw in the crowds, and council tax support certainly doesn’t. Yet it’s something that affects us all, through the amount we pay and the revenues available for essential services. And sadly, as with so many current welfare reforms, government cuts are having a hugely damaging impact on the poorest members of our society.

In 2013 the coalition government abolished council tax benefit, forcing local councils to carry the costs of support for their most vulnerable residents. This was made even more difficult by a 10 per cent cut in funding. While eight London boroughs have maintained full support for claimants, the majority have introduced minimum payment schemes. This means people previously deemed too poor to pay are now expected to afford up to 30 per cent of the council tax bill.

 

We’ve been monitoring the detrimental impacts this has had on both residents and local authorities – and campaigning for the reintroduction of full support – ever since.

 

Our event at the Labour party conference aimed to call attention to this vastly under-publicised issue, whilst also giving councillors the opportunity to discuss their different approaches.

I was particularly pleased to hear Councillor Stephen Alambritis, Leader of Merton Council, announce their commitment to maintaining full support for all claimants in 2018-19. Councillor Alambritis said their decision was based on the principle of not pushing the burden of government cuts onto the poorest – a principle we’ve been advocating for some time.

Councillor Georgia Gould, the new Leader of Camden Council, explained how increasing charges on empty and second homes had enabled Camden to remove minimum payments and reinstate 100 per cent support. She also pointed out the regressive nature of council tax itself and called for a fundamental review of how local government is funded – something which is now needed more urgently than ever.

Shadow Minister for Communities and Local Government Yvonne Fovargue MP then highlighted many councils’ aggressive collection practices. It’s a crucial issue: in 2016-17, nearly 19,000 council tax support claimants in London were referred to bailiffs. Quite apart from the costs to local authorities (as any money collected goes to paying bailiff fees before councils see a single penny), this puts residents through unnecessary distress. We’re hoping Yvonne Fovargue will be able to take her demands for statutory rulings on better collection practices to parliament.

Best of all though were the questions and suggestions from members of the audience, who brought a wealth of knowledge of the issues and systems in their local areas.

The event showed that although cuts are putting local authorities and residents under monumental constraints, there is still cause for hope. If some councils can provide full support, end bailiff use and develop more progressive income streams, others can too.

And to my relief, people did turn up – to hear about this, to discuss it and to demonstrate that for local authorities and residents alike, improving council tax support is still very much a key concern.

Case Study: Transition from DLA to PIP

Having come from a background in frontline support work before starting with Z2K in July, I was already aware of the systematic challenges faced by claimants claiming sickness and disability benefits and the inaccuracies of the DWP’s assessment process. Notwithstanding this, it is still shocking to see the volume of cases we take on at Z2K of people whose health conditions have been completely overlooked at their assessments.

One of my own first cases has been helping “Hannah”.  She and her mother had approached Z2K for support with appealing a benefit decision when Hannah was awarded 0 points in her Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessment. Prior to this, Hannah had been in receipt of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) since the age of six.  As required, when she turned eighteen she had to transition from DLA by assessment to PIP.

Diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes since the age of six, Hannah had also developed Retinopathy a condition related to her diabetes that affected her eyesight.  Coinciding with these, Hannah was diagnosed with depression and was a patient under a psychiatric team for the past two years.  Medical evidence provided to us that was also submitted with her initial claim for PIP detailed the extent of Hannah’s condition and her battle with managing depression.

Notes form psychiatry sessions outline numerous disclosures of self-harm, suicidal ideation and difficulty with managing day-to-day activities.  Furthermore, medical notes from the diabetic team included real concern over Hannah’s reluctance to comply with diabetic treatment which was linked to her ill mental health.  Hannah’s mother is her carer and legal appointee.  In her initial questionnaire, Hannah clearly stated the level of support she requires from her mother with managing her diabetes.  This was affirmed in medical letters which mentioned the need for family to monitor her condition.  Despite the extent of medical evidence and Hannah’s own admissions during her face-to-face assessment, she was awarded 0 points in the health care professional’s report. Following this decision her DLA benefit was stopped.

Besides the loss of income for expenses such as travel to medical appointments and dietary needs probably the biggest impact was that Hannah could no longer afford to pay for a glucometer that automatically monitored her glucose levels, a task she avoided doing. At a cost over £90 per month it was too much for her family to afford to purchase despite recommendations from the diabetic team.

With our representation at her Tribunal this week, Hannah’s appeal was allowed.  She was awarded enhanced rate in the daily living component with reassessment after three years.  The effect of this decision means that not only can Hannah start to use the glucometer again, she can also consider going in to further education in the knowledge that as a recipient of PIP she will be able to access learning support.

In the advice sector, it is almost accepted now that the Mandatory Reconsideration stage won’t change a negative decision and it will have to go to Tribunal.  This defunct process is unnecessarily costing the public money.  Recent stats published show the DWP alone spent £39 million defending decisions at tribunals in 2016.  However, 66 per cent of PIP appeals alone were allowed in 2016.  These figures highlight the growing disparity between the Government’s savings-driven agenda for welfare reform and cost of defending bad  decisions.

Despite clear evidence the assessment process is failing, DWP refuses to make the changes that are needed, and so I’m really pleased to be part of a team offering such vital representation for those vulnerable clients appealing these terrible decisions.

 

Press Release: Z2K Slams Hackney’s Plans to cut Council Tax Support

London-wide anti-poverty charity, Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K), today attacked Hackney council’s plans to increase its tax on the Social Security benefits of the borough’s poorest residents.  The plans, which were announced in a consultation launched last week, include a proposal to increase the charge for disabled and unemployed residents from 15 per cent of Council Tax to 20 per cent.

Responding to the consultation’s announcement, Z2K Chief Executive, Raji Hunjan, said:

“It is absurd that Hackney Council should consider increasing its Council Tax charges for those on Social Security benefits, when all the evidence points to the fact that many of those already living in poverty cannot afford the additional tax burden.”

“While we understand that Hackney, like all London boroughs, has lost significant grant funding, we do not accept that this should impact disproportionately on those who are already living below the poverty line.  All the evidence shows that hiking Council Tax charges for those on benefits increases the danger of those households falling into problem debt.”

“Hackney’s original decision to charge has already left tens of thousands of local families and vulnerable single people facing a choice between eating, heating and paying its poll tax.  Thousands of those have been sent into a spiral of unsustainable debt or harassed by bailiffs.  Increasing that tax by a third next year risks tipping thousands more households into the arms of payday lenders or worse.”

Z2K has also disclosed statistics from Freedom of Information requests that reveal Hackney still has one of the harshest enforcement regimes in London.  In the past four years, it has issued a court summons against nearly 25,000 households in receipt of Council Tax Support who had fallen into arrears – increasing their bill by another £100 in the process.  Worse still, it has instructed bailiffs against more than 5,000 of those households – doubling the debt again.

Hackney’s consultation comes at a time when other nearby London boroughs have decided against taxing the Social Security benefits of their poorest residents.  Last year, Camden scrapped its own 8.5 per cent charge completely after realising it was simply driving its poorest residents deeper into poverty.  And earlier this year, neighbouring Tower Hamlets Council dropped its plans to introduce a 20 per cent tax after huge public and political outcry in response to a consultation.

Summarising Z2K’s opposition to Hackney’s plans, Raji Hunjan concluded:

“The Government’s localisation of Council Tax Benefit has been an absolute disaster from day one – reintroducing the discredited Poll Tax by the back door.  We urge Hackney councillors across the political spectrum to reject these dreadful plans and encourage local community groups, advice agencies and individual residents to respond to the consultation.”

ENDS

Notes for Editors:

 

  1. The national system of Council Tax Benefit was abolished by the Local Government Finance Act 2012, and local authorities were required to establish their own local scheme from April 2013 onwards.

 

  1. Hackney’s consultation is available online at:

http://news.hackney.gov.uk/have-your-say-on-proposed-changes-to-hackneys-council-tax-reduction-scheme/

 

  1. Analysis of the impact of “localising” Council Tax Support in London has been conducted by Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).  Our most recent research report is available at:

 

http://z2k.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/StillTooPoor_web_update5Oct16.pdf

 

  1. The total number of court summons issued against households in receipt of Council Tax Support in Hackney between 2013/14 and 2016/17 was 24,795 made up of the following annual figures – 7,502 (2013/14); 6,231 (2014/15); 6,036 (2015/16) and 5,206 (2016/17).

 

  1. The total number of households in receipt of Council Tax Support who had bailiffs instructed against them by LB Hackney was 5,069 made up of the following annual figures – 1,874 (2013/14); 1,115 (2014/15); 1,210 (2015/16) and 870 (2016/17).