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Universal Credit: Rent Arrears

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 13 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will address the causes of the increase in the number of council tenants in receipt of Universal Credit who are in rent arrears.

I appreciate the concern with this. The reality is that there are a lot of factors at play and universal credit is not the sole issue. Many people are coming into universal credit with pre-existing arrears. Safeguards are in place for claimants, including advances, budgeting support and alternative payment arrangement. Research shows that over time claimants successfully reduce their arrears. I have commissioned work from the department to help understand the true level and causes of these arrears.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He will be aware of the survey conducted by the National Federation of ALMOs and ARCH which details the shocking build-up of rent arrears by council tenants. Of those covered by the survey, 79% in receipt of universal credit were in arrears and only half of those previously had been in arrears. Despite what the noble Lord says, it seems that the rollout of universal credit is causing a build-up of debt among social tenants, creating financial hardship and reportedly driving some into the arms of loan sharks. That is not surprising, given the long processing times and the recently introduced imposition of a further seven-day waiting period before the benefit can kick in—an imposition opposed by the Social Security Advisory Committee. As the rollout of universal credit is to widen, does the Minister agree that these arrangements have to be reviewed urgently, from the point of view of both landlords and tenants, and the seven-day waiting period scrapped?

The best evidence I have got at the moment is a gateway review, which shows that a rather high figure—48%—of the singles on UC have got arrears, but, interestingly, half of them were pre-existing arrears. That compares with 31%—so it is higher—but the interesting thing is how quickly it comes down. In the second wave—that is, three months later—it comes right down to very close to the JSA figure. There is a lot of complexity here; it is not straightforward at all. I am looking at it with some urgency.

My Lords, during the passage of the recent welfare Act the Government were warned by several noble Lords from around the Chamber that, if they did not allow tenants to choose to have the rental part of their universal credit paid direct to their landlords, then rent arrears would increase. As the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has just said, arrears are increasing dramatically, but at the time the Government said no. Why can universal credit be paid directly to mortgage lenders for mortgage interest but tenants cannot choose to have the payment made directly to their landlords?

What we are aiming to do with universal credit—and there is evidence of success in this—is to get people to take control of their own lives. It is much more difficult for people to switch to going into work if their rental situation is locked up in a dependency situation. We are aiming to free people from that so that they can move into work. There are good signs that we are being successful in getting people into work.

My Lords, the Minister’s announcement that he is undertaking a review is very welcome, but will he include the evidence that the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has just put forward about the increasing incidence of rent arrears? We need to make sure that this is merely a short-term spike and not a long-term trend. In the course of his researches, will he look into why the safety net measures built into the design of universal credit, to which he referred, appear to be failing in this instance? This is important. By a country mile, this is the biggest change programme that Her Majesty’s Government are bringing forward. It is mission-critical for the United Kingdom, particularly after Brexit, and it is important that we get it right.

I absolutely accept that we need to get it right. I am spending quite a lot of time with the ALMOs. I have had a couple of meetings with Eamon McGoldrick and John Bibby to discuss their findings. It is complicated. The essential fact is that landlords like their money paid in advance and all benefits systems pay in arrears, so we do not know how much of this is what the ALMOs call book arrears and how much is real arrears. We need to get to the bottom of that and we need to get to the bottom of what are the processing and payment systems issues. We need to understand what the existing arrears are. They are much higher than we expected—50%—and that is a frightening fact. We may be looking at a group going into UC which is unusual because it is moving up and down, and we need to understand and quantify those factors.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for commissioning some work on the level of debt, but in view of the impact of rent arrears and other debts on mental and physical health, will the Minister commission a review of the cumulative impact of the benefit cuts since 2010 on the mental and physical health of claimants? If the Minister is moving on to other pastures, perhaps he could leave a note for his successor to commission such a review.

I congratulate the noble Baroness on her timing with that question. I will not answer it. I am not in a position, however, to commission major research on mental health today.

My Lords, exactly a year ago today this House voted for a Motion in my name, urging the Government to delay the enactment of the Universal Credit (Waiting Days) (Amendment) Regulations until UC was rolled out. The Government ignored that, enacted the regulations and, as a result, 79% of people are now in arrears, because when you make a claim for UC, you wait six weeks to get any money and now the first week is missed completely, without any payment at all. On that day, the Minister refused to make a statement but he said that,

“I will come back to the House at the appropriate time”.—[Official Report, 13/7/15; col. 438.]

A year down the road, does he feel that that time has now arrived, and what is he going to do about it?

I have said to the House that I am looking at this, and I hope that later this year we will have some data. I urge the House not to expect too much certainty on this. This is quite a complicated situation—there is a lot happening under this—and I am hopeful that I will be able to explain some of this to noble Lords to their satisfaction.