We have a strapline on Quids in! magazine that says: Your Money – Be Informed – Take Control. Never has ‘Take Control’ been more important when it comes to benefits.
To be fair, the government agrees. Their approach to the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) is that we’ll take control, whether we’re ready to or not. Most claimants will be paid all their benefits in one big monthly payment, in arrears. Usually this means all the benefits claimed by everyone in the household. Anyone who is working age and claiming Housing Benefit will move onto UC in the next few years.
For renters in housing association or council homes, this means no more payments direct to the landlord. It means the rent comes to the claimant who must then pay it in full and on time.
For people in debt, or who run up debts while waiting for their first UC payment, this is a problem. (It takes at least six weeks, but often up to twelve, to come through and research in 2016 found 4 in every 5 UC claimants were in rent arrears by the time they received their first payment.) We have to be doubly on top of our money because the last thing we need is threatening letters from the landlord because we’ve fallen into arrears. It’s stressful, embarrassing and difficult to get ahead again.
Many landlords want tenants to get involved in their various projects. But with Universal Credit, I don’t believe this is enough and tenants have to take a lead. Not only will landlords no longer receive the rent payments direct from the government, they will not have any information about which of their tenants is paid what. In one way, that’s simpler, they just look to the tenant to pay the full amount. On the other, they won’t know when we’re struggling so we have to tell them.
I did a talk to tenants at a conference in Scotland before Christmas. They totally agreed that it’s time for tenants to become the lead partner instead of the silent partner. Just as we would tell a mobile phone supplier what we need, or a GP what is going wrong, or a neighbour what’s happening this weekend, we must be an active customer with landlords. We’re paying them, so they work for us. When we cannot pay right now, we need them to be on our side.
It’s a massive change. Many social tenants don’t even realise they’re paying rent because it’s all been done behind the scenes. But rather than feeling that was a simpler arrangement, we should be concerned we were being cut out of the process. That Housing Benefit was our money. With Universal Credit, the housing element comes to us first and if we have to juggle things, we can. We just need to keep the landlord informed.
Another complication is with deductions. If we take an advance to cover the weeks without income as we move onto Universal Credit, it is taken out of our payments once they start. Anyone who is jobless and fails to take the steps agreed with a Work Coach at the Job Centre they can be sanctioned and lose a chunk of their UC payments. These deductions come out of the housing element of UC first. But the rent still needs to be paid.
Larger families might also find their income has been capped. When this happens, it’s the housing element of benefit payments that is cut first. But the rent still needs to be paid.
It’s easy to see why landlords have been getting very hot under the collar about Universal Credit. But this means it is in their interests to help tenants who choose to work with them. Like with all customer relationships, we get the best deals and the best service when we ask for what we need and try to meet the people we’re paying half way. We just have to take control.
For an overview of how Universal Credit works, click here