Agenda Item No 8

The Vale of Glamorgan Council

Corporate Performance and Resources Scrutiny Committee: 20th September 2018       

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

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

Reason for the Recommendation

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. 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 roll out however was paused at the end of December 2017 and the Full Service Roll Out that was due to begin in June 2018 has been postponed to October 2018. The roll out that was carried out during these dates has had limited impact on Housing Benefit claimants in the Vale of Glamorgan. Customers remain entitled to Council Tax reduction whilst on UC even if their Housing Benefit award has been stopped. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has stated that the managed migration of existing Housing Benefit claimants to UC is intended to commence in July 2019 and be completed by March 2023.
  2. At the end of June 2018 the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) have advised that there are 535 UC claimants in the Vale of Glamorgan.
  3. UC claims are administered by the local Job Centre Plus and these 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 (USDL) Framework to assist them, which is a partnership approach between the Council and the Job Centre Plus. USDL provides local support for universal credit claimants and was introduced in February 2016 in the Vale of Glamorgan.  A Memorandum Of Understanding 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. 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. Since June 2017 there has been 45 Personal Budgeting Support Referrals of which 31 customers have attended appointments. This is an improved attendance figure to that previously reported and the numbers are expected to increase when UC full service rolls out in September 2018.
  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 would be reduced from £26,000 to £20,000 in Wales. At the end of July 2017 there has been 114 households affected in the Vale of Glamorgan. This ranges from a reduction in Housing Benefit of £2.18 per week up to the £159.50 per week.
  2. All those affected have been offered help via Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) 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. The level of spend on DHPs is detailed in Appendix A.

Universal Credit Digital Service

  1. The DWP have stated that it is intended that applications for Universal Credit will be made using a Digital Service by default and it is intended to roll out this service in Wales. The digital service is expected to begin in the Vale of Glamorgan in October 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.

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 2017 to March 2018.
 

No of tenants subject to formal recovery actions 2016/17

No of tenants subject to formal recovery actions 2017/18

Introductory Tenancies - Notice of Possession Proceeding Served

117

96

Secure Tenancies - Notice of Seeking Possession

869

638

Rent Possession Proceedings

64

34

Evictions

13

8

  1. The annual rent arrears figure in relation to all stock, as at 31st March 2018, was £200,738 which equates to 1% of rental income. This is a deterioration in performance compared to the figure reported last year but still compares favourably with almost all other Registered Social Landlords and Councils in Wales.
  2. A number of internal improvements continue to be made to improve the system used for monitoring rents. This has 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. Work has also been carried out on a Customer Portal which will allow tenants to access rent account information and make arrangements on line. This should reduce the number of phone calls and queries received and enable the team to focus on recovery actions. It is anticipated the portal will go live in September 2018.
  3. A period of staff change within the Income Team has been a challenge during the last year due to some temporary vacancies within the staffing establishment. The time taken to recruit and train temporary staff has put pressure on the permanent staff which has had an impact on the ability of the team to undertake all of the recovery actions require. A period of continuity going forward until the substantive post holders return to work will help to minimise arrears.
  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 and 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
  • Subsidised water tariff (HelpU)
  • 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 made 1,306 home visits to clients (an increase of 23% on last year) which resulted in £308,673 in additional money to tenants. This came from a variety of sources including written off debt, additional benefits, preferential tariffs, backdated claims and grants / loans. Money advisers ensure the service is as accessible as possible by visiting tenants in their homes and offering appointments at Council offices and community spaces. Assistance is often provided at short notice, ensuring crisis situations can be avoided and tenants are able to sustain their tenancy.
  2. Demands on the service continue to grow as people find themselves in financial hardship. As well as people out of work, a growing number of employed people are requesting assistance. These are typically part time workers or those on short term contracts. Another reason for the increase in appointments was a campaign to get tenants onto a subsidised water tariff (HelpU). Applications received before the year end were backdated to the previous April resulting in credits for eligible tenants. In total, 500 successful applications were made, resulting in £174,000 additional income for tenants.
  3. The Income Team has developed detailed plans to support and assist tenants moving onto UC. To date 32 Council tenants are receiving UC and these are in higher arrears on average than other tenants. The roll out is scheduled to start from October 2018 in the Vale and the team are increasing their work in this area. Staff have received comprehensive training. A publicity campaign has been developed in order to raise awareness amongst tenants. The campaign is focused on an animated character called Carl and the line "Carl is ready….." is the opening line for much of the information being provided to tenants. The information also advised tenants about practical steps they can take to be ready for UC including getting on line, opening a bank account and having money advice.
  4. A number of other operational changes are being made in order for the team to work smarter and cope with the increased workload that UC will bring. UC is paid monthly in arrears and directly to tenants and it is anticipated that the level of arrears will increase as a consequence. In response, UC payment dates will be captured on the computer system and bulk email and text messages will be sent each day, reflecting tenants' payment dates, to remind tenants of the importance of paying their rent. Other developments include
  • Assisting tenants to set up direct debits to pay their rent
  • Improved liaison with the DWP to facilitate the prompt processing of claims and changes to the tenancy agreements to highlight the current rent and service charges to assist the claim process.

Social Services

  1. When undertaking a review the DWP advice is to notify the clients that the claim can go up, can go down or remain the same.  Personal Independence Payment (PIP) is now based on a points system and undertaking a medical with a professional. The individual has to complete the form and attend any medical or the claim will stop.   If any of our citizens requires assistance with an appeal, the service is able to sign post them to an agency that will assist with appeals on the Council's behalf and there are training courses available.
  2. Due to the changes in the benefits system some clients who previously received a free service are now being assessed as able to fund part of their care. This is as a result of the charging system previously disregarding the income received from the DLA Care Higher Rate. The PIP no longer differentiates between day and night time care and as a result some clients now have a charge of £24.60 per week.  Of the 77 reviews undertaken to date, 14 of the clients have either started paying for their care where they previously were assessed as not having to contribute to the cost of their care or they have seen an increase in their care costs.
  3. There is an appeals process through which individuals can appeal against their charge on the basis of financial hardship. To date two clients have appealed their revised assessed charge.

PIP is awarded up to the age of 65.  Once someone reaches 65 they would claim Attendance Allowance.  Attendance Allowance is still being split into day and night care needs.  Therefore it is possible to distinguish which element to take into account for the financial assessment. 

Resource Implications (Financial and Employment)

  1. The anticipated financial implications of Welfare Reforms are reflected in the 2018/19 revenue budget, however the impact of the role out from October 2018 will continue to be monitored. The DHP allocation from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for 2018/18 is £277,158 and the Authority itself has allocated a further £223,500, giving an overall limit of £500,658.
  2. There will be staffing implications for the service as UC is rolled out and staff have been kept informed of the position, 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 2019/2020 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

None

Contact Officer

Carys Lord

Head of Finance

Officers Consulted

Benefits and Payments Manager

OM Public Housing Services

HOS Resources Management and Safeguarding

Responsible Officer:

Rob Thomas            

Managing Director