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Agenda Item No. 8

The Vale of Glamorgan Council

Corporate Performance and Resources: 20th July 2017               

Report of the Managing Director

Welfare Reform - Progress Report

Purpose of the Report

  1. To update Members on the work undertaken by the Council in the implementation of the UK Government's Welfare Reform agenda.

Recommendation

  1. That the report is noted and that a further update report is provided on an annual basis.

Reason for the Recommendation

  1. To ensure that Members are kept updated.

Background

  1. Work undertaken by a Scrutiny Task and Finish Group considered the impact of the current Welfare Reform and their final report was presented to Committee on 23rd  April 2013. The report and recommendations were endorsed by Cabinet on 8th  May 2013. Subsequent reports have been made to update this Committee on the significant Welfare Reform changes and how these have affected the residents of the Vale of Glamorgan and the Council.
  2. Since the last report in September 2016 the Welfare Reform changes made and expected are:

Introduction of Universal Credit            February 2016

Universal Support - Delivered Locally    February 2016

Benefit Cap                                        November 2016

UC Digital Service                               June 2018

  1. To allow scrutiny of the introduction of Welfare Reforms and their effect on the Council and its population, the data previously supplied has been updated at Appendix A for information.

Relevant Issues and Options

Universal Credit

  1. Universal Credit (UC) was implemented in the Vale on 22nd February 2016. The pace of the implementation remains slow and therefore has had a minimal impact on Housing Benefit caseload with only 65 Housing Benefit claims having stopped due to an award of UC. The Universal Credit roll out to full service in the Vale of Glamorgan will begin in June 2018 and so numbers are expected to remain low until this point. Customers remain entitled to Council Tax Reduction while on Universal Credit even if their Housing Benefit award is stopped. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has stated that the managed migration of existing Housing Benefit claims to Universal Credit claims is intended to commence in July 2019 and be completed by March 2022.
  2. During the period February 2016 to the end of April 2017 the Department of Works and Pensions (DWP) have advised that 672 Universal Credit cases have commenced in in the Vale.
  3. UC claims are administered by the local Job Centre Plus and have been claims from new single claimants who would otherwise be eligible for Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) including those with existing Housing Benefit and Tax Credit claims. Representatives from the DWP have engaged with officers of the Council on the implementation and liaison for delivery of UC in the Vale based on a proven track record of close liaison for the benefit of the local community. The DWP roll-out of UC is to be supplemented by the locally delivered "Universal Support" to provide advice and support to UC claimants.
  4. The slow pace of Universal Credit has meant that the Council needs to continue to support those on Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) until they are eventually transferred to UC. After that time the Council will still be responsible for Housing Benefits administration for those persons who are clients of the Pension Service and customers in supported accommodation who are presently outside the scope of Universal Credit.

Universal Support Delivered Locally (USDL)

  1. The DWP anticipate that vulnerable and complex customers will require the Universal Support Delivered Locally Framework to assist them, which will be a partnership approach between the Council and the Job Centre Plus. Universal Support - Delivered Locally (USDL) is the arrangement introduced by the DWP in partnership with Local Authorities to provide local support for universal credit claimants. USDL was introduced in February 2016 in the Vale of Glamorgan and was confirmed in a Memorandum of Understanding agreed by Cabinet in January 2016 with available funding from the DWP. The MOU gives the Council a stake in the introduction of UC to provide advice and support to UC claimants, to support vulnerable customers and to deal with more complex enquiries.
  2. The adoption of the MOU supports local citizens during the Governments Welfare Reforms as the knowledge and skills of the officers within the Council's Benefit Section is appropriate to deal with the requirements of the Council's commitment within the MOU.
  3. USDL requires the Council to
  • Provide support to UC Service Centre Staff - advising on housing cost issues using the LA's skills in dealing with Housing Benefit Claims.
  • Provide Personal Budgeting Support (PBS) - for claimants with complex needs and in particular those who require personal budgeting advice support
  • Provide Digital Support for claimants to get online and stay online by identifying public Internet sites and locations where trained staff can provide supported access
  • Work with Universal Credit programme in preparing landlords for the implementation of Universal Credit
  • Manually processing the Local Council Tax Reduction scheme where UC has been awarded.
  1. Those requiring personal budgeting support are identified by the Jobcentre work coaches and a referral is made to the Housing Benefit service to attend an appointment with the customer. Initial appointments are carried out in the Jobcentre. To May 2017 in the Vale of Glamorgan there have been 33 Personal Budgeting Support referrals of which only 15 customers have attended the appointments.
  2. In respect of Personal Budgeting Support the DWP has given an overview of how support will operate for Universal Credit. On the provision of personal budgeting support, the DWP identifies two main elements to such support:
  • money advice to help claimants cope with managing their money on a monthly basis and paying their bills on time; and
  • alternative payment arrangements (APA) for some claimants who genuinely cannot manage the standard monthly payment and where there is a risk of financial harm to the claimant or their family. This might include rent paid directly to the landlord, a more frequent than monthly payment or a split payment between partners.
  1. The DWP has set out detailed guidance to decision makers on how to assess a need for money advice and/or alternative payment methods

Benefit Cap

  1. A further significant change to the Benefit Cap threshold was introduced to the Vale of Glamorgan in November 2016. The DWP advised that the overall household benefit cap applying to Tax Credits, Universal Credit and Housing Benefit will be reduced from £26,000 to £20,000 in Wales. To May 2017 there has been 114 households affected in the Vale of Glamorgan. This ranges from a reduction in Housing Benefit of £5.59 per week up to the £132.19 per week.
  2. All those affected have been offered help via Discretionary Housing Payments to allow them time to look at their personal budgets and to negotiate debt repayments. The effect is to increase the use of Discretionary Housing Payments fund by assisting those affected until they modify their personal finances.

Universal Credit Digital Service

  1. The DWP have stated that it is intended that applications for Universal Credit will to be made using a Digital Service by default and it is intended to roll out this service in Wales; beginning with Flintshire Council, in April 2017 The digital service is expected to begin in the Vale of Glamorgan in June 2018.
  2. Currently the Welsh version of the online system remains unavailable and therefore if a customer wishes to enter the Universal Credit process in the medium of Welsh they will be referred to make a telephone claim. The DWP are hoping the Welsh online claim service will be available early 2018. Until the digital system is ready it will mean that a further roll-out of cases across Wales will be limited.

Council Housing

  1. The Housing Services Income Team has continued to monitor income levels and to support individuals who have experienced difficulties in paying their rent. The data below highlights the statistics relating to recovery action for the period April 2016 to March 2017.
 

No of tenants subject to formal recovery actions 2015/16

No of tenants subject to formal recovery actions 2016/17

Introductory Tenancies - Notice of Possession Proceeding Served

121

117

Secure Tenancies - Notice of Seeking Possession

677

869

Rent Possession Proceedings

86

64

Evictions

11

13

     
  1. The annual rent arrears figure in relation to all stock, as at 31st March 2016, was £165,770 which equates to 0.84% of rental income. This is an improvement in performance compared to the figure reported last year and compares favourably with almost all other Registered Social Landlords and Councils in Wales.
  2. A number of internal improvements helped improve performance including a review of the IT system used for monitoring rents. This resulted in further automation of the recovery process which has saved time carrying out administrative tasks and allowed staff to increase personal contacts with tenants and provide assistance to manage their rent account. Other efficiency gains have been derived from outsourcing printing and posting of rent increase letters and an increase in the volume of SMS messages sent to tenants.
  3. A period of stability within the Income team has also helped reduce arrears. The three new Income Officers have now settled into their roles and been fully trained in all aspects of the job. With the increased experience gained, they have developed skills and knowledge to become more effective in their role. This includes being able to carry out all Court advocacy work, interpreting rent accounts quickly and knowing their 'patch'- including building relationships with individuals and knowing how and where to target their time.
  4. The underlying economic climate and changing welfare benefits continue to impact on individuals and families and the Income team regularly find themselves working with households who are in a precarious financial situation. Basic assistance and advice is provided by Income Officers however the Money Advice team provides invaluable assistance in more complex situations, helping tenants in a variety of ways including:
  • Maximising the income of clients
  • Providing budgeting advice
  • Warm House Discount Scheme applications
  • Providing debt advice
  • Application to relevant charity trusts and relief fund
  • Discretionary Assistance Fund application
  • Personal Independence Plan & Disability Living Allowance applications
  • Young Carers referrals
  • Employment Support Allowance applications
  • Attending Tribunals with the customers
  • Supporting/arranging Universal Credit claims with the customers.
  1. Over the last year the three advisors have made 1,059 home visits to clients and successfully secured benefits worth £280,629 via backdated claims, written off debt, additional benefits, preferential tariffs and grants/ loans. The service is very accessible being provided from Council offices and community buildings as well as home visits to tenants' homes. Assistance can also be provided at short notice, which ensures that crisis situations can be avoided and tenants are able to remain living in their own home.
  2. The Income team's preparations for UC started in February 2016. This work has involved raising tenants' awareness of the benefit changes, producing leaflets, staff training and establishing contacts and working practises with staff in other teams as well as at the DWP who administer UC.
 

Tenants in receipt of UC

All tenants

Total arrears (£)

£3,899.66

£165,770

No of tenants

16

3,857

Average arrears level per tenant (£)

£243.73

£42.98

     
  1. To date there are only 16 tenants in receipt of UC, however the average level of arrears for claimants is significantly higher than other tenants (who are not in receipt of UC). This reflects some initial difficulties with notifications, particularly identifying tenants who had been put onto UC and complications around direct payments, as well as the fact claimants are paid in arrears.
  2. The concern is that if this trend is extrapolated for all claimants, it would have a significant effect on the Council's rental income stream. In order to mitigate this, the preparation work identified above, along with continued communications with DWP will improve the process and result in fewer issues. Additionally, targeted interventions and general awareness raising will help tenants understand their responsibilities to pay the rent in a timely way.

Social Services

  1. Some clients undergoing review from DLA (Disability Living Allowance) to PIP (Personal Independence Payments) have had their awards reduced when they were on Middle Rate DLA Care and High Mobility, and when transferred and assessed for PIP they have lost the mobility element and are receiving the high daily living element of PIP.  Several cases have been identified and officers are required to explain the potential impact if they pursue a PIP review. It has been identified that further training on this matter is required for staff to enable them to advise clients or signpost them to advice.
  2. Due to the implementation of the Social Services and Well Being Act (2014)(SSWBA) the Council now takes into account the whole of the daily living element of PIP. This means their assessed charge is higher (i.e. approx. £50.00 per week to £70.00 per week) than those still on DLA high rate care. Changes have meant that clients have lost the mobility element that we would previously disregard.
  3. This change affects working age people, their ability to accept this increase and the ability to pay as there has been no change to Attendance Allowance.

Resource Implications (Financial and Employment)

  1. The anticipated financial implications of Welfare Reforms are reflected in the 2017/18 revenue budget. Due to the Welfare Reform changes in 2016/17 and its effects into 2017/18 the DHP budget has been increased by the DWP primarily to account for the changes to the Benefit Cap. The DHP allocation from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for 2017/18 is £330,286 and the Authority itself has allocated a further £223,000, giving an overall limit of £553,286. Staff have been kept informed, however as the transfer to Universal Credit remains slow there have not been any significant staffing implications as a result. This may become an issue during 2017/18 as the implementation of Universal Credit moves forward.

Sustainability and Climate Change Implications

  1. There are no direct climate change implications, however, the Council need to ensure that measures put in place to support welfare reform are financially sustainable.

Legal Implications (to Include Human Rights Implications)

  1. The Council is required to administer Council Tax, the Council Tax Reduction Scheme and Housing Benefit in line with government regulations.

Crime and Disorder Implications

  1. Future changes to Benefits may have implications for crime and disorder.

Equal Opportunities Implications (to include Welsh Language issues)

  1. Central Government and the Welsh Government have assessed the equality implications of the welfare reforms and the Council Tax support scheme. The Council has assessed the implications of the discretions applied to the Council Tax reduction scheme in line with the regulations.

Corporate/Service Objectives

  1. The service objective is to administer and pay Housing Benefits and Council Tax Reduction to eligible claimants.

Policy Framework and Budget

  1. The matter is for Executive Decision by Cabinet.

Consultation (including Ward Member Consultation)

  1. Ward members have not been consulted as the issue affects all areas of the Council.

Relevant Scrutiny Committee

  1. Corporate Performance and Resources

Background Papers

Contact Officer

Nigel Smith                                

OM Exchequer

Officers Consulted

Carys Lord Head of Finance

Christina Delaney Benefits and Payments Manager

Mike Ingram OM Public Housing Services

Suzanne Clifton HOS Business Management and Innovation

Responsible Officer:

Rob Thomas                               

Managing Director

 

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