To receive the report of the Executive Director of Finance, Resources & Customer Services providing the DWP Implementation of Universal Credit in Enfield.
RECEIVED the report of the Executive Director of Health, Housing & Adult Social Care presenting the DWP Implementation of Universal Credit in Enfield – Readiness Plan.
1. The report was presented by Sally Mcternan (Assistant Director – Community Housing) and Sally Sanders (Head – Financial Assessment) and sets out the results of a recent workshop that took place recently in regards to the Council’s readiness for the implementation of Universal Credit (UC) in Enfield.
2. The Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) are having a phased roll out of UC in Enfield. The initial roll out starts in November 2017 in post code areas EN1, EN2 and N9 plus 8 post codes. All other areas, the roll out starts in February 2018.
3. This was not a Council administered benefit change but was being driven by Central Government. This is the Council’s readiness for the implementation of UC, looking at the duties that on behold on the Council once UC rolls out and housing benefit ceases to be administered by the Council.
4. The Council is administering its readiness plan through a board structure. The board is chaired by James Rolfe (Executive Director – Finance, Resources & Customer Services, along with all projects management methodology to be undertaken in a risk workshop.
5. The risk table (page 113) is attached to the readiness plan and the team have managed to mitigate the risks currently identified. Most of them mitigated to green. However, there are two risks that the team have not been able to mitigate to green which are:
a. UC02 – Homelessness – impact around resources regarding the early stage of the rollout due to staffing levels at John Wilkes House. The Homelessness Reduction Act, to be rolled out from April 2018, will address staffing levels and resources required to meet the legislative requirement. This was a medium risk at present, but as staffing issues would have been resolved by February 2018, then it is expected to be a green rating.
b. UC04 – Debt Recovery – This was the most significant risk to the Council. The team have been unable to mitigate this risk away from a red rating. The Council will have a cash flow challenge as it waits for benefits to come through either as a result of an alternative payment arrangement or other arrangement with the tenants. The team were not confident to mitigate this risk beyond a red rating.
6. The following comments, questions and issues raised in response to the report:
a. The Chair re-iterated that the implementation of UC is a very serious situation residents will find themselves in. As a result, the council will have to deal with homelessness, debt recovery, etc. Concern raised about staffing levels at John Wilkes House to deal with UC rollout.
b. Sally Mcternan clarified that there was a new process around rent collection, negotiated with Housing service colleagues, and are in the process of changing the way in which income recovery procedures work directly with tenants. As part of the rent account monitoring the assessment hub will be very quick to act when rent arrears start to accumulate. The hub would be working closely with housing colleagues to ensure that procedures are very robust and fair so as not to take unnecessary action against people where there is a genuine challenge. The issue for the Council means that collection rates will be affected and the team will have to make a bad debt provision to ensure that the Council’s accounts remain in a good state.
c. James Rolfe commented that when the benefit cap first came in April 2013, the Council put in place the Welfare Assistance and Support Hub which was the Council, Job Centre Plus (JCP), Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and other agencies who work with people affected by this benefit change. Sally Sanders clarified that they had placed 2 health authority officers at job centre plus and are working closely with colleagues at DWP and CAB to try and mitigate the impact of UC. Sally Sanders team along with housing colleagues are providing some training for local JCP staff so they understand the issues around tenancy and tenancy matters better than they have previously needed to. An example of joint working.
d. Sally Mcternan’s response to Councillor Savva’s request for leaflets regarding UC and that they will be with councillors by the end of the week so that local residents can receive effective advice.
e. Councillor Dogan concern about the income collection risk as claimants have to wait 6 weeks in arrears for payment of UC. Did UC come from DWP directly to the Council’s account or through residents’ accounts. Sally Sanders clarified that it was through the residents accounts but tenants could elect to have their housing benefit paid direct to the Council. Sally Mcternan further clarified that claimants would have to initially wait for 7 days and then the DWP allow themselves 6 weeks to gather all the information relating to the claimant to make a calculation.
f. Councillor Hayward asked what the benefit of the 6 week wait was for central government and if any tenants accrued debt after the 6 week period, would sufficient money come through to repay the debt. Sally Mcternan clarified that the scheme was designed to mimic work. So when people start work they work a month in arrears and is the same principle for people entering work at the end of the UC claim. There first month of UC in arrears will tide them over in the first month of work.
g. James Rolfe further clarified that one of the other issues that has arisen from other sites implementing UC is that there is evidence that people receiving large sums of money, intended for housing rent, spend it on the wrong things and this was one reason the council were working with CAB to provide as much advice as possible around financial management. So there is a risk here and is not as much about a 6 week wait. The issue about savings is that the expectation is that UC will be a cheaper system to administer because of fewer benefits being paid. The DWP have already made significant savings as they implement UC and move into a more digital online solution. So if people want to ask questions about UC they will have to use a call centre operated by the DWP rather than coming to the Civic Centre as people do with housing benefit. This will lead to a reduction in the number of people calling the Council call centre resulting in a saving for the Council. The DWP will also make other savings, as time goes on, with the reduction of the housing benefit case load. This will lead to a reduction in the money they pay to local authorities to administer housing benefit and a reduction in staffing levels aswell.
h. Councillor Jiagge asked what the implications are on the Council’s budget, what the impact is going to be on Council resources and if there will be any pressures on services that are being provided. Sally Mcternan clarified that the team were undertaking an impact assessment exercise which had not been concluded yet. In terms of budgeting, assumptions have been made about the level of income the council will have and the amount of income the council have at risk as a result of customer behaviour i.e. tenants not paying their rent.
This was very much a worst case scenario, as it touches on housing requirements and in many cases where people have other services from the Council. UC could potentially affect other council services including Adult Social Care, Schools and Children’s Services, Housing, Finance, Financial Assessment Services, Housing Revenue Account and Housing Gateway. Further details of this will come through the impact assessment.
i. In terms of financial impact, this could not be worked out until teams understand the service impact. Early indications are the Council has put sufficient funding aside already.
j. Councillor Simon asked about rent collections for people in the 6 week waiting period and if they will be expected to pay at the usual rate or will they be allowed to accumulate debt. Sally Mcternan clarified that rent accounts will be carefully monitored. There is an arrangement in place, with Housing colleagues, around taking a risk based approach (through discussions & reminders) with people that when monies come through they must pay their rent. The Council are also seeking alternative payment arrangements where money is given direct to the Council. Additionally, each claimant would also be given a choice as to whether they want direct payments or not, by the DWP.
k. Councillor Simon’s comments that teams need to communicate to all social workers that if interrogating rent accounts, they need to be able to interpret them effectively. Sally Mcternan clarified that there had been cross council engagement and very close working with social workers.
l. Councillor Simon asked about free school meals and and if risks around this were being looked at. Sally Sanders clarified that free school meals were available to anyone in receipt of UC. However, the issue of the 1st 6 weeks wait for payment would affect people who are eligible for free school meals during this period. School would not receive payment for free school meals until claims have gone through the 6 week waiting period. Schools IT systems do not reveal whether payment has been received or are still awaiting payment. This was an area that the team would be re-visiting Croydon (pilot authority) about. There seemed to be a fault with the systems around the 6 week waiting period.
7. The Chair thanked Sally Mcternan and Sally Sanders for their report. This item would be monitored very closely with regular reports to the Committee.
AGREED to note the DWP Implementation of Universal Credit in Enfield – Readiness Plan.