As part of our ongoing work with the Department for Work and Pensions on Universal Credit the RLA was invited to spend the day with DWP staff at Widnes Job Centre Plus (JCP) to see how full service is working. Widnes JCP has been live with full service for 2 years and staff there are fluent and knowledgeable with the digital service. Senior policy officer Natalie Williamson and RLA Director Richard Jones spent the day with them. Here Natalie shares her insights.
This was a valuable learning experience and was a good opportunity for us to learn about Universal Credit from the claimant and Work Coach perspective so that we can look at how we best advise our members who have tenants that are currently or will be claiming Universal Credit as the service rolls out.
Graham Roberts who works on Universal Credit for the Devolved Administrations Team was our guide for the day and his helpful tips for navigating Universal Credit Full Service are incorporated in this article.
The morning was spent going through a presentation on full service and how claimants apply for Universal Credit. We applied and went through the process ourselves and got to see what the claimant online account was like. In the afternoon we were able to sit with the work coaches and see the interview process and meetings with claimants.
The application process and verification of identity
For those landlords who may want to help their tenants apply the application process itself is fairly straightforward, apart from the verification process online.
This part requires the claimant to pick a number of options such a credit reference agency or the post office to help to verify their identity.
This stage also requires the claimant to potentially upload documents which perhaps even the most computer literate would struggle navigating.
For those people who have difficulty verifying their identity on line they are able to take their ID information to the local job centre. However, any delay in verifying their identity can potentially delay payment of Universal Credit.
Graham did stress when we asked how people are supported with all this being online that although people initially referred to full service as ‘digital by default’ there is a lot of support available for those who need it most.
Graham also explained that the claimant will have an allocated work coach in the Job Centre and a Case Manager in the Service Centre with the long term goal being to link specific service centres with specific jobcentres.
We thought this was a positive thing as, although the localised model of housing benefit administration cannot be replicated under Universal Credit full service, this change does have the potential for more localised knowledge and relationships to be established in the longer term.
An interesting point was that the vast majority of Local Authorities receive funding from DWP to deliver ‘Universal Support’. This has two purposes:
1) personal budgeting support to assist claimants with the transition to monthly payment and help set up things such as a transactional bank account
2) assisted digital support to offer 1-2-1 support to UC claimants to make their claim online and then manage their online account.
If you think that your tenant might struggle with the transition to Universal Credit being an online service perhaps contact your Jobcentre or Local Authority to find out more about this service.
What struck us considerably at this visit was with Universal Credit putting so much focus on claimant responsibility, landlords that rent to tenants who are (or will be) claiming Universal Credit will have to have much more contact with their tenant and keep lines of communication as open as possible in case of delays in payment or changes in circumstances.
Applying for housing costs
When we asked where the tenancy would be verified, for rent payment, Graham said this takes place at the initial meeting with the work coach, where they will run through housing and finance. Here claimants require the following:
- Evidence they are residing in the property
- Evidence they are legally liable for the rent and
- Evidence as to how much rent they pay.
A tenancy agreement and copies of bank statements will normally be sufficient but your tenant may come to you for help with getting this information together and it may be something that you want to put in place now with your tenants as it will help the housing costs part of the claim to keep moving.
Graham also said that it could be worth PRS landlords knowing when the last day of the claimant’s assessment period falls if they are moving properties, as the whole of the monthly Universal Credit award is assessed on the claimant’s circumstances on the last day of their assessment period.
Therefore, if a claimant moves half way through their assessment period and the move results in reduced housing costs, this rate will be paid for the whole of that particular monthly assessment period.
Again, this requires full cooperation of the tenant and may not be possible for some landlords.
Although we have campaigned for the housing element to be separated to avoid scenarios like this we have been told that this isn’t possible.
The DWP Housing Confident scheme, an internal learning exercise for DWP staff on housing related matters has now been delivered nationally and work coaches are encouraged to have open conversations about arrears and housing costs which should hopefully identify more claimants that might actually benefit from direct payment to landlord from the outset of the claim.
Applying for Direct Payment using the Alternative Payment Arrangement (UC47)
As announced in December 2017 if your tenant has 2 months or more arrears you can now apply for direct payment without the tenant’s ‘Explicit Consent’.
The tenant will be informed that you have requested that the Universal Credit housing costs be paid to you directly.
If the tenant does not want the rent to be paid directly to the landlord, they can dispute this.
However, the tenant will need to provide evidence that they are not in rent arrears in order to dispute the alternative payment arrangement.
Managed Payments to Landlords can also be triggered at any other time by landlords based on the Tier 1 and Tier 2 factors.
Please also note that from 11th April 2018 Landlords who have tenants on Local Housing Allowance (LHA) and have direct payment to Landlord set up, if their tenant moves across to UC this arrangement can still remain without the need for a UC 47 application. This can be triggered by the work coach asking the necessary questions about the claimant’s current housing arrangements.
Tenants coming across from LHA will also have an extra 2 weeks housing benefit payments that do not need to be paid back to help them with the transition. If coming across already in arrears we would recommend you speak to your tenant about this payment if it does not come to you as an existing direct payment. You can find out more about this here .
Once the direct payment to the private landlord (the alternative payment arrangement) has been set up, the following information can be disclosed to the landlord:
- the start date of your housing payments being paid to the landlord
- when the landlord can expect to receive the first payment
- the amount of the next payment of your Universal Credit housing costs
- if there have been any changes to the Universal Credit housing costs (the reason for the changes will not be provided or discussed)
For more information on this click here.
If you are experiencing difficulties with this change in guidance and staff in your local area are unfamiliar with this change DWP recommends that you contact your local DWP Partnership Manager or alternatively DWPs Regional Partnership Managers who are listed on gov.uk here.
You can find out more about applying for Direct Payment here.
If you want to apply for a rent arrears deduction from the claimant’s award you can also do that here.
What we also learnt from seeing the way that Universal Credit is calculated is that as it is one award if your tenant is in work it might not always be best or most appropriate to set up a direct payment as the housing costs can change due to the real time data sharing of earnings information between DWP and HMRC – if your tenant works more hours for example.
We therefore, would recommend members speak to their tenants openly about setting up a direct debit or standing order. The Credit Union also help people to set up accounts to help with this transition.
The Online Journal
The key line of communication between the claimant and the work coach is certainly the online journal.
Within the journal both the work coaches and claimants receive ‘to dos’ i.e. actions to complete, and they are able to communicate via the journal so being able to manage online is important.
Work coaches are monitored on the number of ‘outstanding’ ‘to dos’ that they have, so there is monitoring is in place to keep the claim moving and get the person into work or ‘work ready’ once they have agreed and signed their claimant commitment.
This journal is also where the clamant can note their ‘Explicit Consent’ for information to be shared.
Graham highlighted that the claimant “holds the key” to their online account and are able to share their claim information with whoever they choose. He suggested landlords ask to see the claimant’s account if they are happy for the landlord to help.
You can see how both landlord and tenant would benefit from being familiar with the on line account and journal if a good relationship is already established.
We would, therefore, recommend to landlords that having a good relationship with their tenants, especially those that have tenants that are worried about Universal Credit, is key and to ask their tenant to write in their online journal that they give their explicit consent for information to be shared with their landlord about any housing related matters.
Explicit consent to share information can be given by a claimant in one of three ways – either via their online journal, on the phone or in person, with the third party, in a jobcentre.
Consent must be given freely, unambiguously and in an informed way.
The claimant must be very clear on the information that they want disclosed and who the information can be disclosed to.
Consent does not last indefinitely but only covers a particular query or piece of business.
We were also told that as long as the tenant gives their explicit consent and wishes their landlord to come with them to an appointment about housing costs then the landlord will be able to sit in for that particular part of the interview with the work coach.
Advance payments of UC are also available from the start of a claim and at the moment claimants can request these via their work coach or by phoning the Service Centre.
Information on advanced payments forms part of the initial discussion every claimant has with their work coach when it is explained when their first monthly payment of UC will be paid.
Progress is being made so that the claimant will also be able to apply for an advance payment on line
You can negotiate with your tenant if a certain amount of this advance can be used to cover any rent so that they are not falling into arrears from the offset.
Also, as part of the UC measures announced in last year’s budget with effect from April 11th, 2018 any claimant who is already receiving support for their housing costs via Housing Benefit immediately prior to making a claim for UC will receive an additional payment of two weeks Housing Benefit.
This payment is to support them as they transition to the monthly payment cycle of UC and help address the issue of rent arrears build up whilst waiting for their first UC payment.
Universal Credit in action
In the afternoon Richard and I sat with the work coaches and claimants.
The work coach I sat with had a claimant in rent arrears – albeit only one month – and was being threatened with eviction.
The APA was set up straight away with the claimant’s consent and the work coach had spoken to the landlord to stop the eviction explaining that the claimant had gone into arrears simply because of the way that UC is paid.
The work coach seemed very knowledgeable about the housing element but did say it was a big change having only previously worked with Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance to now effectively supporting the wider range of claimants Universal Credit brings
It was encouraging though to see how knowledgeable the work coaches at Widnes JCP were and how they did ask other questions to see how the claimant was managing.
This claimant wasn’t managing particularly well and the work coach even managed to get her a fortnightly payment as opposed to monthly – showing some flexibility in the system for the most vulnerable.
The success of Universal Credit will almost certainly depend on the consistency of knowledge and level of service being delivered nationally in terms of claimant and landlord experience.
Looking forward, the challenge of full migration is still to come with more complex claims and roll out still to complete.
Widnes JCP has had two years ahead of migration to get used to an already constantly changing system.
However, Richard and I did feel generally positive after the visit and it is interesting to see the discretion that work coaches actually have in the job centres.
Universal Credit is not only a benefit system change it is a cultural change and shift of responsibility to the claimant.
As a landlord or agent operating in this market to try to prevent substantial losses we will have to engage with our tenants as much as possible.
Where this breaks down we need to know how to apply for direct payment, the route to escalate complaints and how best to ensure the rent is paid.
This can only be successful if the system is working as it should be and consistency is paramount to this, to ensure that every JCP is as efficient as Widnes JCP.
We would like to thank Graham and Hilary’s team in Widnes for welcoming us to spend time with them and also thank DWP for arranging for us to see what frontline delivery is like.
Finally, attached are some links into gov.uk that you may also find useful:
A Landlords guide to UC. This includes updated guidance for landlords and includes information on Alternative Payment Arrangements
A Claimants Guide to UC that will help you understand their responsibilities whilst claiming UC