To consider the attached report.
R Pavey, Service Director (Customer Services), introduced a report to the Select Committee regarding the Universal Credit Impact Working Group.
He advised that Universal Credit (UC) was a consolidation of a number of individual benefits into a single payment for claimants. The roll-out of UC to all Job Centres in the District was completed in December 2018. UC will ultimately affect the majority of working-age benefit claimants which make up around 50% of EFDC’s Housing Benefit caseload. As from 5 December 2018 any new Housing Benefit claimants of working age were now referred to the Job Centre to apply for Universal Credit which would incorporate the Housing element of their Benefit entitlement. There was a phased migration of existing Housing Benefit claimants onto Universal Credit which the Government had now extended to 2023.
UC was administered by the Department of Work and Pensions and a formal arrangement existed with Citizens Advice to provide advice and help with claims. The Council therefore had no official role in the UC claim process. It had been made well known that there have been problems with its roll-out nationally which affected the Council’s residents and impacted on our services. Most of the issues have arisen out of the 5-week delay for claimants receiving their first UC payment although the timeframe has often been longer. These problems have been recognised by the Secretary of State who is currently reviewing elements of the UC process.
The current issues affecting residents was growing debt, vulnerable claimants and the claim process, the digital-by-default process and safeguarding concerns. This would inevitable impact on the demands and performance of the Council’s services, due to people having problems paying their bills, such as rent and Council Tax which could lead to homelessness concerns.
The Working Group consisted of Council departments (Customer Services, Housing, Revenues and Benefits, Safeguarding and Community Services)DWP, Epping Forest Food Bank, Peabody Trust, Citizens Advice, Churches Together and Epping Re-use. Other organisations have been approached and invited, dependent upon the issues discussed.
The aim of the Working Group was to establish a programme and provide support networks for claimants. There have been several meetings of the Group and key issues were identified:
The work of the group represented a way in which the Council could work with its partners to provide better outcomes for the residents and would reduce the potential impacts on demands for services. There were a number of areas yet to be explored and future findings would reported to the Select Committee at a later date.
Councillor J H Whitehouse remarked on what an excellent initiative that the working group were achieving and has brought the Council some very favourable comments from the groups that have been invited to come to the meetings. Councillor Whitehouse asked, out of interest, which Churches were involved in the Churches Together Group. R Pavey replied that the Churches Together Group were in Loughton. Councillor Whitehouse asked if the Churches Together Group from Epping could also be invited. R Pavey replied that it was not an exclusive group and the more groups that could get involved the more help and information the residents of the district would be able to access.
Councillor J H Whitehouse asked about the mapping exercise that had been done and asked if that exercise could be shared with Members as residents contact Members with issues, Members would know where to look to help resolve the residents issue. R Pavey advised that talks were in progress to create an online hub which would be hosted at the Council and would be a portal for organisations and would give claimants access to all the groups that could help.
Councillor D Wixley asked if ‘digital by default’ referred to in the report could be explained. R Pavey replied that digital by default meant that was how you initially applied for the benefit. DWP and Citizens Advice offer face to face support and help claimants to understand how to claim. This had not been widely advertised and the Council were seeking to get this publicity out into the community through the relevant agencies.
Councillor D Wixley stated that he had heard nationally about Universal Credit and the biggest problem seemed to be that claimants had to wait 5 weeks before they got paid, people could get a loan to carry them over the 5 week period and they had 16 weeks to pay it back. He asked why people were paid in arrears and how many people in the Epping Forest District were affected by Universal Credit. R Pavey advised that the 5 week delay was the primary cause of debt accruing with claimants. These problems had been recognised by the Secretary of State who was currently reviewing elements of the UC process.
R Pavey advised that he had recently spoken to the Epping Forest foodbank and they had stated that the demand on the foodbank had greatly increased due to the 5 week delay with the UC system.
Councillor S Rackham asked as a district how many people were there on Universal Credit and how would we get the message of these help groups out there to the hard to reach residents. R Pavey advised that there were approximately 2,000 people claiming UC and reaching the residents was an evolving process as the Group was in the early stages of looking at these matters. He advised that he would be in a position to give an update at the next meeting.
Councillor R Brookes asked how many people were having issues with paying their Council Tax and rent. R Pavey stated that he saw the figures monthly for Council Tax and there was no impact. Regarding rent these figures were only accessible quarterly and we had now reached quarter 1 of the financial year he advised that he would look at the figures to assess the situation and report back at the next meeting.
The Chairman asked if work had been done in the past with regards to young carers.
The Community Culture and Wellbeing Manager, G Wallis stated that young carers were a priority group for all agencies, the issue with young carers was that they didn’t recognise themselves as young carers and therefore didn’t ask for any help.
Councillor D Plummer advised that he had claimed UC. He felt there were many difficulties around UC, having to wait for 5 weeks to be paid and although you could get a loan it had to be paid back within a certain time. He also highlighted that it cost him £5 return to get from Waltham Abbey to the Job Centre and many claimants did not know that you could claim the fare or part of the fare back from the Job Centre. He did not feel that it was very widely publicised. There should be posters put in communal places, blocks of council flat noticeboards, doctors, libraries urging people to find out if they are claiming all that they are entitled to. R Pavey advised that the Working Group were looking at publicity and getting the message out there to the residents.
The Chairman stated that maybe publicity could be looked at in the Select Committee Work Programme.
Councillor A Patel asked about residents who were supported with mental health conditions, had they already been diagnosed by a GP with mental health conditions or was it such that residents who come forward have been undiagnosed.
R Pavey stated if someone had been diagnosed as having mental health conditions they are then signposted to the Council and are they advised of the benefits that are available to them.
R Pavey advised that within the DWP there were specialised people who were trained to give specialist advice and help people with diagnosed mental health conditions. At the Council we are recognising mental health as an issue and our frontline staff will be trained to recognise people with mental health and therefore be able to direct them to the correct department for specialist help.
Councillor S Kane stated that although the Council had no official role in the UC claims process and arrangements had been made with Citizens Advice to provide advice and help with claims, under a formal arrangement with DWP, the Council should still spread the word and get guidance out to as many claimants as possible. A multi-agency centre was being set up in the Job Centre in Loughton but the Council should try and get a multi-agency approach across the district in libraries and through the Church community. It was important to get those up and running as soon as was possible and to make sure that those multi-agency networks advise of the correct information.
The Chairman stated that out of fairness of inclusion more money goes into towns than into villages and villages needed to have the same access to information as the towns did.
Councillor Bedford advised that he would be meeting with some groups soon and he would pass this information on and would report back through the Member’s Bulletin the outcome.
The Chairman asked if it would be possible for this Committee to invite someone from the DWP to explain about the UC process. R Pavey said he would take it back to the Working Group and report back at the next meeting.
That the report of the Universal Credit Impact Working Group be noted.