A study by the Trussell Trust showed the increased use of food banks in areas where Universal Credit has been rolled out.
The NI Human Rights Commission report on the impact of tax and welfare reform echoes studies from across the UK which show low income families and people with disabilities are hardest hit by the changes.
Even those who have never been behind on their rent are falling into arrears while the ability of housing associations to support tenants is constrained by the way Universal Credit has been set up.
These impacts were recognised by The UK Parliament’s Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland Affairs Committees which recommended, in their joint report on the Inquiry into Welfare policy in Northern Ireland, that mitigations be extended for another four years.
As a member of the Cliff Edge NI coalition working group, NIFHA is calling for implementation of the following measures which would help prevent and alleviate such problems.
– End the 5-week wait for payment
The five-week wait is causing unnecessary hardship, a rise in food bank usage and an increase in rent arrears. Some tenants are being advised to claim the 100% advance on their payments to cover the five-week wait. This leads to people falling into debt from the start. People should be able to get a payment in the middle of this period and there should be greater flexibility on payment frequency for all.
– Allow more data sharing between DWP and social landlords
Landlords need to be told in advance who is moving onto Universal Credit, so they can better support tenants and prevent problems for those struggling with payments or in need of extra assistance to make their initial claim. We want to see ‘implicit consent’ restored and better use of the Landlord Portal for two-way communications between landlords and the DWP (Department for Work and Pensions). This is key to the success of managed migration.
– Ensure that landlords receive their payments on the same cycle as their tenant.
Where benefits are paid direct to the landlord through Alternative Payment Arrangements (APAs), they are paid 4-weekly, whereas Universal Credit is paid twice monthly here. We acknowledge that DWP has committed to monthly APAs and we look forward to working with them, ensuring landlords’ voices are heard in the design of a new system.
– Increase funding for support and advice
Government must ensure people do not miss entitlement for Universal Credit. They should allow flexibility of backdating for those who need it.
– Scrap the Social Sector Size Criteria (Bedroom Tax)
Around 7,100 housing association social sector tenants are deemed to have a house bigger than required and will have to meet a potential £5.6m shortfall in rent if mitigations end in March 2020 plus a loss of almost £500,000 in Benefit Cap payments. Across Northern Ireland in total 34,000 people will be affected by the introduction of the Bedroom Tax. Overall there will be a £23 million shortfall in rent and Benefit Cap payments.
Even if social sector tenants want to downsize, the fundamental misalignment between the current social housing stock and this policy makes it impossible for most. This misalignment will not be able to be ‘fixed’ in the short term. Given that the reasons for the introduction of the mitigations haven’t changed, we seek a continuation of the payments as an interim solution until the Bedroom Tax is scrapped.