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23.07.15

Quarter of ‘frustrated’ LAs not preparing for universal credit

A quarter of local authorities have not even started making preparations to switch to universal credit and are frustrated  about the confusion surrounding the transition, according to a report by Ipsos MORI carried out on behalf of the DWP.

Of the 145 council benefit managers surveyed, 25% reported not having started preparing while two-thirds of those that were already preparing staff and systems were not yet ready for the switch.

The report, based on research between 17 November and 12 December last year, determined that “lack of consistent or clear information” about timescales and future plans from DWP was often a “source of frustration” for local authorities, with many reporting being unable to prepare or to be confident in their preparations.

Amongst the responses from the online survey were managers saying that information they read is “contradictory to what other local authorities’ experiences have been”.

One respondent said: “We really want front-facing information and this seems to be missing. There are lots about the customer experience but nothing about the local authorities’ role in this.”

Others said that they awaited “more detailed information from DWP about timescales and potentially affected residents” and said communication was not “substantial” because “the goal posts keep changing”.

Another issue highlighted in the report was the lack of data about access to digital services more generally, despite 41% of local authorities recording the number of claimants who use housing benefit online.

Only one in 10 authorities were collecting data on access to digital services at home and one in 20 on digital services without support. Similarly, only 10% had established joint working practices with digital support providers, with most authorities partnering with Jobcentre Plus and Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

Ross Macmillan, market intelligence consultant at Allpay, said: “I would strongly recommend that local authorities begin a bigger push on offering claimants flexibility, choice and clear information when it comes to universal credit, especially around budgeting their income and making rent payments. With 10% of the UK’s local authorities now living with universal credit and the rest due by 2020, it’s time to start implementing some of the more hands-on tactics to encourage digital inclusion and safeguard future rent payments under the new scheme.

“One of the biggest shifts of the welfare system in moving to universal credit is the digital transformation. This relies on internet access or a computer at home, which isn’t necessarily guaranteed in low income households.”

According to 2014 findings from the Office for National Statistics, just over half of low-income households have a computer compared to the general figure of 83% UK households.

Macmillan advocated making digital inclusion more of a priority and added: “I believe mobility and mobile payments could be the key. Paying rent or bills by mobile gives claimants that flexibility and ease of budgeting. It also benefits the landlord as flexibility increases commitment from tenants to pay with automatic or online methods, increasing the likelihood of payment.

“While some housing groups are still relying on limited and rigid payment options, there is a risk that this is not fit for purpose as universal credit becomes widely available. Mobile methods of payment offer claimants the control they feel they have with cash and can be used to top up a smaller, more manageable direct debit, for example. By providing the right support, appropriate flexibility and choice of payment options, local authorities – working with landlords – can help their residents prepare for universal credit and minimise the impact of their businesses.”

Despite the ‘frustration’ and lack of digital data collection, many authorities considered partnerships and co-working a positive change with many developing relationships with Jobcentre Plus and Citizens Advice Bureau. Some also praised DWP training sessions and guidance documents, as well as regular meetings with its representatives.

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