This report provides Members with a progress report regarding Universal Credit and welfare reforms as agreed by Cabinet in September 2014, including the work of the Welfare Reform Steering Group.
Members considered a progress report regarding Universal Credit and
The Chairman welcomed Glenn Stoneman, Howard Noble and Tracey Munton from the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
The Chief Finance Officer introduced the report. Referring to the section on the Single Fraud Investigation Service he clarified that while the report could be read as being critical of the DWP team that was not the intent. Rather the intention had been to highlight systemic shortcomings with the current structure of SFIS nationally and some of the problems this caused for local authority officers.
During the discussion the following points were raised:
· Member training – there was general agreement that Member training on Universal Credit was needed, including how to signpost constituents for help and support. DWP representatives confirmed they would be happy to deliver an event jointly with the Council for Members.
· Risks relating to the Single Fraud Investigation Service – the Chief Finance Officer stated that, with regard to the risks highlighted in the report which Members had expressed concerns about, he was due to hold further discussions with the DWP where these would be discussed. Actions agreed to mitigate risks would be reported to the Committee.
· Discretionary Housing Payments – in response to a query, the Chief Finance Officer undertook to provide details of how many of the 900 applications for assistance had been approved.
· Lessons learned from other areas – as other parts of Kent had already gone live with Universal Credit full service the DWP had been able to learn lessons in advance of implementation in Medway. Generally, Kent was felt to be in a very good position with 95% of claimants paid on time and there had been no major issues so far.
· Signposting – in response to a question about the need to signpost claimants on how to claim for council tax reduction and free school meals, particularly given the importance of the latter for schools’ budgets, the Chief Finance Officer undertook to provide further details about how the Council encouraged free school meals take up.
· Support for DWP staff – a Member asked for an assurance that DWP staff were being adequately supported given the often stressful nature of their jobs. DWP representatives outlined in detail the training programmes in place for both new and existing staff before they were expected to deliver the UC service. DWP recognised that staff worked in a stressful environment and there was a programme of mental health and suicide awareness training for all staff as well as an emphasis on achieving a work/life balance. DWP were pleased to hear from Members about some of their constituents’ positive feedback about DWP staff.
· Managed migration - a Member queried whether the date of 2020 for the completion of managed migration of an entire household from legacy benefits to one UC entitlement was a national or local timescale. DWP advised this figure had been set nationally and it may be achieved more quickly in Medway.
· Outstanding debt – a Member asked, following the experience of a constituent, what period of notice was given where a decision was made to recover outstanding debt. DWP representatives undertook to look at this case outside the meeting but added that claimants could access information about their claim and account on line at any time.
· 6 week wait for first Universal Credit payment - a Member asked what information and advice was given to people in this situation where they said they did not have enough money to last until the first payment was made. DWP representatives advised that advance payments would be an option in such cases. Decisions were made on the same day an application was made with payments following quickly. Help was also available with personal budgeting. In addition, the Government website contained a great deal of useful information and budget planners etc.
· Medical appeals involving intermittent medical conditions - in response to comments about a Member’s experience in representing appellants with intermittent medical conditions and the likelihood that appeals would not be upheld, DWP promised to look at this outside the meeting.
· Training for the voluntary sector on Universal Credit - DWP advised that a stakeholder event which would involve the voluntary sector was due to be held the following week. If more work was needed with the voluntary sector following this then that would be addressed.
· Rent arrears – officers described the actions being taken to inform and support council housing tenants.
· Impact on Universal Credit of working extra hours/Change to state pension age for women – regarding a query about the impact of the latter on the Employment and Support Allowance and also the effect of working extra hours on Universal Credit claims, DWP representatives undertook to look at this outside the meeting.
· Proof of tenancy – a Member commented that in other areas private housing tenants had been required to produce an up to date tenancy agreement before Universal Credit could be paid. For tenants who had lived in the same property for many years this may not be possible without co-operation from the landlord. DWP advised that a letter from the landlord showing proof of tenancy would also be accepted.
· Road shows – an undertaking was given to let local councillors know when roadshows were taking place in their wards.
The Committee agreed to:
a) note the progress on the various work streams referred to within the report, and;
b) request a training session for all Members on Universal Credit.