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Be the Change Frontline Network explores Universal Credit

Be the Change Frontline Network explores Universal Credit

Be the Change Frontline Network explores Universal Credit

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Peff Soulsby, the Communications and Fundraising Officer for Changing Lives, writes about a recent Be the Change Frontline Network event which explored the thorny issue of Universal Credit and improvements for the future. 

In November 2017, frontline workers in the housing and homelessness sector from across the North East gathered together for a Be the Change Frontline Network event. Coming hot on the heels of the Autumn budget, the theme of the day was Universal Credit and welfare reform.

Newcastle was one of the pilot areas for the Universal Credit rollout, which means frontline workers in the North East have been at the forefront of encountering issues and inconsistencies as and when they occur.

Replacing six welfare benefits, the changes that Universal Credit brings raise specific issues and challenges for the people we work with. Early fears were that already excluded clients were at risk of becoming even more excluded by the changes that came with Universal Credit.

Paul Robson, DWP Partnership Manager for County Durham, gave a presentation on the rollout of Universal Credit, and participants were able to ask questions about the issues they had encountered during the early adopter phase.

There is a recognition that Universal Credit's criteria is not applicable in all instances, especially when it comes to people who are homeless or vulnerably housed. A monthly lump sum payment can be problematic for the client group as clients are more likely to use income on daily expenses or paying debts rather than budget in advance. Similarly, the new system of "one benefit unit per family" opens up vulnerable people to the risk of financial abuse, and is potentially dangerous in situations that involve domestic violence.

Agencies advocating for claimants can verify the need for temporary alternative payment arrangements (APAs) by confirming "demonstrable vulnerability" such as homelessness or domestic violence, but ultimately decisions are at the discretion of DWP staff. Frontline workers recounted frustrating experiences with applications for APAs being rejected without explanation. The benefit of bringing frontline workers and DWP staff together was highlighted as Paul was able to give practical recommendations for raising these issues with local Partnership Managers.

Another change brought by Universal Credit is that benefits are paid directly into a bank account. This again raises issues as a lot of clients don't have accounts, and don't have the ID needed to open a bank account. Issues like County Court Judgements for outstanding debt make high street banks unlikely to take on clients as customers. Having attendees from diverse backgrounds and organisations again proved useful for innovative problem solving as a representative from Change Account explained they offer fully compliant accounts accessible to clients with poor credit history. Frustrations around ID requirements have been able to be elevated to a national level to explore ways to reduce delays by working with high street banks.

Staff from Fulfilling Lives gave a presentation reflecting on their experiences of supporting clients with multiple and complex needs through Universal Credit in Newcastle and Gateshead. DWP reported they are seeing a much more complex client group accessing the job centre who previously didn't do so and Fulfilling Lives have been able to share their experience and knowledge to better equip DWP to manage these clients. Their experience is that when more time and attention is given to vulnerable and complex clients, a relationship of trust develops, which makes it easier for individuals to disclose difficult information.  As a result of the system moving online, the hope is that more time will be made available to invest in building these relationships where needed.

The day concluded with discussions of the issues raised and proposals for ideas that could help. Having participants from diverse organisations with different experiences, supporting homeless clients, allowed for some innovative brainstorming and there were discussions around building and strengthening relationships with DWP, ways to tackle digital exclusion, working with landlords who refuse to accept Universal Credit claimants as tenants, issues around claimant relationships and the need to build trust with work coaches, and training around complex needs.

The event showed how having representatives from different contexts - including housing providers, landlords and DWP staff - communicating with frontline workers allows us to better identify areas for development and to share best practice for working together.

To build on this, individuals in each of the 12 North East Local Authorities have the opportunity to apply to become frontline champions and represent the views of peers at their local homelessness forums to influence commissioning, strategy and decision making. To find out more, contact adam.orr@changing-lives.org.uk

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