Peter Aldous recounts Lowestoft's experience of universal credit roll-out

18th October 2017

Peter Aldous calls on the Government to learn from Lowestoft's experience from the roll out of Universal Credit; to take a pragmatic approach, take into consideration local problems as they occur and not stick rigidly to a pre-arranged timetable.

In my constituency the full roll-out of universal credit began in Lowestoft in May 2016, and is due to begin in Beccles later this month. In Lowestoft significant problems have been encountered: many vulnerable people have been placed in very difficult situations, and at times the system has struggled to cope. Over the past nine months the position has improved, but challenges remain, and it is important for lessons to continue to be learnt as the roll-out accelerates in the coming months.

On 21 February, the Minister for Employment, who is present, visited Lowestoft. He sat down with local DWP and jobcentre staff, the council leader and council officers, and listened to their concerns. Since then there have been steady improvements. The various agencies involved in the delivery of universal credit are generally working well together. Good initiatives have been introduced: there is a vulnerable people officer front of house, the citizens advice bureau works from the jobcentre, and the district council is holding regular workshops with private sector landlords. There is evidence that universal credit is allowing the jobcentre to support those in low-paid work, which it could not previously do. It is therefore able to improve their life prospects, and get them into work. I also think it appropriate to highlight the Secretary of State’s decision to refresh the guidance for DWP staff to ensure that anyone who needs advance payments is offered them upfront, and to make the helpline free of charge.

While it is right to acknowledge the improvements that have been made in recent months, it is important to recognise that much work still needs to be done. First, the long delays before some claimants receive a payment must stop. The Government must seriously consider implementing the recommendation from Citizens Advice that those who need it must receive a payment within two weeks, which they will not have to pay back.

Secondly, the role of private sector landlords in providing housing for claimants must be recognised, and they must be put on a level playing field with social landlords when it comes to setting up alternative payment arrangements. The “give tenants a choice” initiative, launched by the Residential Landlords Association and Shelter, should be looked at closely. If something is not done, the housing crisis will be made even worse as private landlords refuse to accept universal credit claimants as tenants. That will put more pressure on social housing, and will almost certainly lead to an increase in homelessness.

Finally, it is important to have in mind the vital role played by local housing authorities working in partnership with the DWP in the implementation of universal credit. They are having to bear the costs of providing emergency temporary accommodation and recovering housing benefit debt. Either those costs should be transferred to the DWP, or the councils should be given additional funds.

I understand why the Government wish to proceed with the roll-out of universal credit, and I give them my support. However, they must proceed with caution. They must not stick rigidly to a preconceived timetable; they must slow down or speed up as circumstances dictate. They should be pragmatic and not dogmatic, and they should continue to listen and respond to feedback.

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