Agenda item

Universal Credit - Oral Update


The Service Manager (Revenues & Benefits) circulated an update paper on Universal Credit (attached as an appendix to these minutes) and welcomed Evelyn Cook – Deputy Chief Executive Officer from Citizens Advice North and West Kent to the meeting. The Committee was informed that Gravesham had been on Universal Credit (UC) since 30 May 2018 and this meant that UC was available to all claimants with the exception of some categories.

·         Following a question with regard to the mitigation with regards to direct payments to landlords, it was noted that the rules had been relaxed and applicants could request that the rent part of the UC be paid direct to a landlord. A landlord could also request this measure and consideration was based on vulnerability or risk of arrears. The Service Manager (Revenues & Benefits) had advised staff to prompt residents to ask for their rent to be paid direct at the point of claiming.


·         Members were advised that the BBC Panorama programme had recently given a good overview of UC and had highlighted that the key issue was the lack of money management skills of recipients.


·         The Service Manager (Revenues & Benefits) confirmed that the time from UC application submission and payment was 5 weeks.


Evelyn Cook advised that Citizens Advice (CA) provided a daily service from 10am to 2pm from Monday to Friday, to assist people who could not manage apply for UC themselves. CA also provided additional digital and personal budgeting training. She commented that the UC was paid to one member of a family. Applicants were advised, when they saw their first work coach, to ask for an advance payment when applying for UC and there had been a slight increase in the numbers of people saying they had no money. It was perceived that UC had two issues being the delay in payment and that people would be worse off than they were now as UC subjected people to more conditions and it was felt that there would be an increase in poverty to 2 to 3 years’ time.

The following comments were made:

·         It was noted that someone who had just left their job had to wait before receiving UC as they would have their wages. There were also issues when people lost their paperwork or simply did not know how the UC process worked.


·         In relation to food banks, it was noted that payment delays in the old and new systems have increased the use of these facilities.


·         Members were advised that Essex County Council would be closing 50 to 60% of library services. It was noted that people could access computers in libraries. However, the Committee was informed that most people now had a smart phone. If a person did not have a smart phone or a computer, Citizen’s Advice directed them to the JobCentre. Applications for UC could be made over the telephone but the DWP discouraged this. Citizens Advice always asked if a person had family or friends who could help.


·         The UC currently only applied to people of working age and therefore the lack of IT literacy had not yet been an issue. However, when UC managed migration was rolled out to people with disabilities in 2020 IT literacy issues may arise. It was considered that there would not be enough public computers in the Borough as the DWP asked applicants to access their accounts from once a day to once a week. The Service Manager (Revenues & Benefits) advised that the number of applications for UC was not yet very high as UC Full Service and migration had not yet started. The Service Manager (Revenues & Benefits) also highlighted the following:


·         Claimants must also claim for a Council Tax Reduction

·          Rent arrears could be caused when funds were in transit. 

·         There was a UC landlord portal which trusted landlords  could log into to check if a claim had been made.


·           In relation to the maximum total deductions allowed from UC being reduced from 40% to 30%, it was noted that this would be bad news for legacy housing benefit overpayment recovery. The Service Manager (Revenues & Benefits) agreed stating that the HB overpayment amount outstanding of £84,143.42 would increase. The Assistant Revenues and Benefits Manager advised that attachments to housing benefits would be a low priority as recipients would have other debts reducing the amount of housing benefit the Council could recover.  In addition, debt advice issued by the Finance Services Authority (FSA) ranks housing benefit overpayments as low as credit card debt.


·           It was explained that when Stop Notifications were received from UC the Council gave HB claimants an extra two weeks to help with the transition to UC.  They will claim any overpayments back from the landlords for this period as they are not entitled to receive it.


·           Money management training was available from Citizens Advice on request. The training lasted for 5 to 6 hours and Citizens Advice funded 2 hours of the training. This was from Comic Relief funding which was ending this month. Citizens Advice was unable to pay for this training from core funding. Priority had to be given to debt management training however it had been noted that for many debt clients were repeat offenders.


Attention was drawn to the Universal Credit Commons Select Committee Report of 26 October 2018 the recommendations for which were circulated to the Members. The Service Manager (Revenues & Benefits) highlighted the culture of denial and defensiveness and that funding had been thrown at the initiative rather than issues being addressed. There was also a heavy reliance on local authorities and Citizens Advice.


The digital system to support UC was only 50% complete and could not deal with complex cases, for example, families with more than 3 children and this had been openly admitted by the service centre in Canterbury. Many local authorities, including Gravesham, had raised their concerns regarding UC with the Government.


The Assistant Revenues & Benefits Manager stated that Borough Council services were doing their best and were working with Citizens Advice. This view was endorsed by Evelyn Cook who advised that Gravesham and Tonbridge & Malling were doing a better job than some others.

Resolved that the report be noted.