About Marc Francis

Marc leads on all of Z2K’s campaigning. He was formerly the Housing & Neighbourhoods Policy Advisor at Save the Children and before that, Public Affairs Manager at Shelter, leading its successful campaigns for mandatory Tenancy Deposit Protection by private landlords and against the use of Bed & Breakfast accommodation for homeless families.

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.

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).

 

A new “Tsar” for Social Housing?

There’s a lot of really good stuff in the Mayor of London’s draft Housing Strategy, which was published for consultation yesterday. Z2K will take a closer look at the detail over the course of the next few weeks as we put together our own response. But a story in Wednesday’s Evening Standard meant my own eyes were quickly drawn to a small section towards the end of the 236 page document entitled “listening to the views of social housing tenants and leaseholders”.

The strategy identifies an urgent need to put residents’ concerns back at the heart of decision-making by local authority landlords and housing associations. This is clearly in the context of the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower and the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s inept response. But the accompanying analysis of the problem and the solutions proposed indicates there has been some serious thought about this issue in City Hall.

The strategy first concludes that the current mechanism for residents to escalate complaints to the Independent Housing Ombudsman is unnecessarily complicated as they have to do this through a “designated person” (an MP, local councillor or tenant panel). It says the Mayor will call on ministers to restore the previous position whereby residents could go straight to the Ombudsman themselves once they have exhausted their landlord’s internal complaints process.

Z2K would wholeheartedly agree with that. When it was introduced a few years ago, the “designated person” stage was promoted as a chance to encourage the resolution of complaints locally, to enable the Ombudsman to focus on the worst cases. In practice, however, neither MPs nor councillors have the resources to process complaints, and few of London’s bigger housing associations about whom most complaints are being made, seem inclined to respond positively anyway. It has simply further delayed complaints getting into the Ombudsman’s long queue for a proper independent investigation.  We hope this proposal can be picked up by MPs in the Public Service Ombudsman Bill.

Secondly, the strategy identifies some of the serious weaknesses with the regulation of the social housing sector. The current Social Housing Regulator at the Homes & Communities Agency (HCA) is obliged to monitor “consumer” standards like repairs services being provided by social landlords as well as “economic” standards like their balance sheet. In theory, the regulator will take action if the failing causes a “serious detriment” to residents. In practice, however, only 10 of the 1,050 “consumer standard” complaints made to the regulator have resulted in a finding of “serious detriment”. The Mayor reckons that the bar for the “serious detriment” test has been set too high, and so he is calling for ministers to review it to ensure the regulator actually investigates more complaints.

I have a bit of experience of the Social Housing Regulator myself. Last year I made a complaint on behalf of tenants at one of London’s biggest housing associations. For two winters, the gas repairs service their landlord provided was so bad that hundreds of tenants were left without heating and hot water for weeks on end. You couldn’t get a more cut and dried example of “serious detriment”. And yet, the regulator refused to investigate, saying those tenants affected should make individual complaints to the Ombudsman. It was only after the local Member of Parliament raised concerns about the regulator’s stance in the House of Commons six months later that an investigation was begun. It swiftly concluded there had been serious detriment after all and the association was downgraded – too late though to prevent tenants having to endure the same appalling service last winter too.

The strategy’s third proposal is for the Government to establish a Commissioner for Social Housing Residents modelled on the Children’s Commissioner for England. I guess that kind of watchdog or “Tsar” would be a lot better than nothing, but Tsars have a somewhat patchy record here as well as in Russia.  My own preference would be a return to the kind of regulatory regime overseen by the Tenant Services Authority (TSA), swept away in the Coalition Government’s “bonfire of the quangos” back in 2010. Of course, I can’t say for certain the TSA would have ensured Kensington & Chelsea responded properly to the concerns of Grenfell Tower residents about the cladding being hung around their block. But I doubt very much the current Social Housing Regulator would have done so.

Whether its Sadiq Khan’s new Commissioner or the old TSA, the restoration of effective regulation of social housing is desperately needed.

Benefit cap – ‘Real misery is being caused to no good purpose’

The Zacchaeus 2000 Trust welcomes today’s High Court ruling that the Benefit Cap unlawfully discriminates against lone parents with children under two years-old.  We hope this is the beginning of the end of a truly dreadful policy.  But given the Government’s swift announcement of its intention to appeal against the decision, thousands of lone parent families suffering this unlawful discrimination are still left facing severe financial hardship and homelessness while the legal tussle continues.  Continue reading

66,000 households hit by lower Benefit Cap

Yesterday the first set of quarterly statistics showing the impact of the lower Benefit Cap were published and they include several interesting revelations. Z2K has consistently opposed the cap since its first introduction in 2013. We do not accept that it provides greater work incentives, as most of those affected are unable to work in the first place, and the evidence shows it simply serves to further impoverish low income households, with many made homeless as a result. These latest figures confirm this.

Unsurprisingly, given that the lower cap has brought many more households within scope, the total number capped has increased dramatically from around 20,000 in November 2016 to 66,135 in February 2017.  However, this figure is well below the total of 88,000 forecast by DWP in its Impact Assessment back in August.  And it is substantially below the 120,000 suggested when the legislation lowering the cap was going through Parliament.  Continue reading