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industry news


Universal Credit is pushing tenants towards debt and eviction


T


enants receiving Universal Credit are increasingly falling into rent arrears because of payment delays, forcing


them to turn to food banks and running the risk of eviction. Organisations representing more than one


million council households said Universal Credit (UC) claim processing problems had ‘notably worsened’ over the past few months. Thousands of benefit claimants are facing debt, rent arrears and eviction as a result of policy design flaws in UC, according to landlords and politicians, who are demanding an urgent overhaul of the system.


“UC rules require claimants to wait at least six weeks for a first benefit payment”


The situation is no better in the housing


association sector. While giving evidence to a House of Commons select committee earlier this year, Nick Atkin, chief executive of north west- based Halton HA highlighted the following facts:


• Of the 12,091 tenancies covered by the four main housing associations operating in Halton, 1,058 are in receipt of UC and of these 87 per cent, over 920 tenants have outstanding rent arrears;


• UC claimants total 9 per cent of all Halton tenancies but account for 37 per cent (£586,000) of all rent arrears;


• Average arrears now total £602; an increase of £160 (36 per cent) since the tenants moved on to UC; and


• There are four times as many UC claimants in receipt of a Notice of Seeking Possession as non-UC claimants.


Atkin told MPs, “We support the modernisation of the benefits system and its simplification. Unfortunately, Universal Credit in its current form is not delivering this. It is placing people at increased risk of losing their home as well as the additional legal costs from recovery action.” Landlords have warned that the UC rules that


require claimants to wait at least six weeks for a first benefit payment mean many are going without basic living essentials, forcing them to turn to food banks and loan sharks.


Delays


Ministers are being urged to slow down the national rollout and to increase support for vulnerable claimants who are struggling to cope with the demands of monthly payments and an increasingly online-only system. Research carried out by the Guardian newspaper, has revealed that:


“We support the modernisation of the benefits system and its simplification. Unfortunately, Universal Credit in its current form is not delivering this” – Nick Atkin, Halton HA


• Eight out of 10 social housing tenants moved on to UC are falling into rent arrears or increasing the level of pre-existing arrears;


• Families unable to manage the regulation 42- day wait for a first payment are regularly referred to food banks by housing associations or local MPs;


• Some claimants are waiting as long as 60 days for an initial payment because of processing delays on top of the formal wait; and


• Uncertainty about the system has contributed to a dramatic decline in the number of private landlords willing to take on benefit recipients, even if they are in work.


The National Federation of ALMOs, which


represents arm’s length organisations running council housing, and the Association of Retained Council Housing called for payment waits to be reduced. Chloe Fletcher, the NFA’s policy director, said:


“Our members are reporting households being forced to turn to food banks, payday lenders and, alarmingly, loan sharks just to get by. This is storing up long-term financial problems for these families.”


Failure


Although it simplifies the benefits system by merging six benefits into a single payment, its implementation has been dogged by expensive IT failures and administrative complexity. Ministers have slowed the pace of the rollout that is now due to be completed in 2022. Private landlords are saying that without


changes they will be reluctant to let to UC recipients because of the high risk of tenant arrears. Alan Ward, the chairman of the Residential Landlords Association, said: “Landlords are rapidly losing confidence in the system.” Membership surveys by the National Landlords Association show the number of its members willing to let properties to recipients of benefits has fallen sharply from 46 per cent in 2010 to just 18 per cent now. Although 430,000 people are currently on UC


that figure is expected to grow to seven million when rollout is completed. Landlords and charities are keen that Government ministers move quickly to correct the more negative effects of UC long before then.


Electrical safety checks must be risk-based


Government plans to introduce mandatory electrical safety checks of privately rented homes are backed by a landlords’ body, who insist the tests must be risk-based rather than being made compulsory every five years. The Residential Landlords Association,


which has submitted its views to the DCLG following consultation discussions, said tests were a good idea, but risk must be taken into account when considering how frequently they are carried out. It agreed that compulsory checks on the


fixed wiring are necessary due to the wide range of homes and standards within the PRS, but it does not think all rental properties should be subject to the same regime. Since the Housing and Planning Act became law, a working group set up by DCLG has been discussing the pros and cons of compulsory checks of PRS homes. RLA Director Chris Town, said:


“Compulsory five yearly testing has been brought in to Scotland, but Scotland has a relatively small population, so what is suitable there is not necessarily suitable in England.


Diverse


“The private rented sector in England is huge and extremely diverse, ranging from £1m properties to tiny bedsits and everything in between. The RLA believes the best course of action would be to bring in a risk-based system.” He added: “At the moment HMOs must


have five-year electrical safety test as they are deemed to be high risk, suffering multiple and intensive use. However, if you have a family home for instance, there isn’t the same demand on the system, so there should be a longer test cycle.” The RLA is proposing that only high risk properties are placed on a five-year cycle, partly because of the expense of doing the checks but also the inconvenience caused to tenants. “To carry out these checks, every single


fixed electrical fitting, such as sockets, switches and light fittings must be opened up and examined, it is not just a case of plugging in a tester. This can take half a day or longer and is much more intrusive and expensive than a gas safety check,” added Town. The RLA is also recommending the


installation of Residual Current Devices, which offer added protection for the occupants from electric shock and can offer extra protection from faulty appliances.


“The RLA is proposing only high risk properties to be placed on a five-year cycle”


www.housingmmonline.co.uk | HMM March 2017 | 19


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