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Universal Support: East Suffolk

Volume 650: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered universal support in East Suffolk.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, and I welcome the Minister. The Government set up the universal support system to assist universal credit claimants in making claims and managing the payments they receive. The full roll-out of universal credit in Lowestoft, in my constituency, started in May 2016. Shortly afterwards, under the leadership of Waveney District Council, the East Suffolk universal credit support partnership was created to provide universal support in east Suffolk, in the area covered by Waveney District Council and Suffolk Coastal District Council, which are due to merge next year.

From 1 April 2019, the service in its current form will be discontinued as a result of the Government’s decision to award a national contract for the delivery of universal support to Citizens Advice, which was announced on 1 October. I have no criticism of Citizens Advice and the great work it does locally and nationally, but I am concerned as to why the change has been made and whether it is in the best interests of universal credit claimants in east Suffolk.

From the start, the roll-out of universal credit in Lowestoft has not been straightforward. Many people, often the most vulnerable in society, have been put under enormous pressure and have faced major difficulties in getting by day to day. Local Department for Work and Pensions staff have risen to the major challenge and have acquired new skills to work with people in a completely different way than they did in the past.

The roll-out is a massive task, which local DWP staff cannot deliver on their own. The East Suffolk universal credit support partnership has provided vital support to universal credit customers. The partnership has brought together various organisations, including Citizens Advice, jobcentre managers, the Anglia Revenues Partnership, the local housing department and housing associations, to support universal credit customers and local communities.

At the outset, the partnership identified barriers that needed to be removed and challenges that needed to be addressed. The barriers included the difficulties associated with managing a single monthly payment, the challenges that many claimants face in accessing a digital system, and meeting the requirements of households with complex needs. The challenges that needed to be addressed were an increase in rent arrears, private landlords consequently not accepting universal credit tenants, and managing a potential increase in homelessness.

As well as more access points, the partnership has provided personal budgeting, assisted digital support and special disability advice. With a large amount of private rented sector housing in Lowestoft, proactive work with private landlords has been vital in addressing their concerns about universal credit. There have been quarterly meetings, workshops and regular phone and email contact.

The general feedback is that the partnership has been successful in helping people with the transition from legacy benefits to universal credit. Earlier this year, the partnership won silver at the public sector transformation awards in London. The partnership has also been proactive in considering how the system could be improved. It has just funded a behavioural insight project to look at how nudge techniques could be used to increase the take-up of personal budgeting support ahead of managed migration and full service roll-out in the rest of the Suffolk Coastal area. Such an innovation would not have happened without local authority support.

Despite all that good work, on 1 October, Waveney District Council received a letter from the DWP advising it that, as from 1 April, it would no longer deliver universal support, and that Citizens Advice would do so from that date. It is disappointing that the council received that letter on the same day as the public announcement by the DWP regarding the new partnership with Citizens Advice and that there was no prior notification. Moreover, six months’ notice gives the council very little time to manage and prepare for the new arrangements. It will have to bring to an end its partnership agreements with third parties at its own cost, for which it has not been able to budget.

The ending of the partnership will have a significant impact across east Suffolk. Partnership agreements with providers of assisted digital support, including specialist disability advice services and social landlords, will need to be ended, as their involvement can no longer be funded by the council. Benefit liaison officers will no longer be able to arrange and chair universal support partnership meetings or operational assisted digital support and personal budgeting support meetings. The innovation project to boost personal budgeting support will not take place.

Assisted digital support, which has been offered at all local authority customer service access points from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday to Friday, will cease. That will mean that the number of access points across the whole east Suffolk area will reduce significantly. The council’s digital resource map, which is often used by local DWP work coaches and universal credit customers, will no longer be available. The council will no longer be able to provide its staff’s energy and enthusiasm, which I have very much seen for myself, to ensure that the roll-out of universal credit goes as smoothly as possible.

Citizens Advice is an important partner in the current arrangements, but there is a concern as to whether its local network has sufficient capacity and infrastructure to be as effective as the service that has been provided until now. Two other concerns have been raised with me. First, why has the DWP not yet published its review of universal support, which presumably provides the explanation for ending the current arrangements and for whether the correct procedures have been followed? Secondly, why was there no consultation with those currently delivering the service? Should there have been a public procurement process and a competitive tender before the award to Citizens Advice?

I have spoken to Citizens Advice, locally and nationally, and it is committed to providing as high a quality service as possible from next April, although it has a lot of work to do to have the service up and running by then. It will try to build on the good practice that has been put in place locally in east Suffolk, but restrictions on resources, capacity and the number of outlets will prevent it from replicating many of the innovative initiatives that the partnership has put in place.

Further constraints are that the national contract is for only one year and that Suffolk County Council is proposing to cut its core funding to Citizens Advice across the county. Bearing in mind that the contract is for 12 months, and taking account of the managed migration planned from November 2020, the concern is that local authorities’ missing link with customers will increase homelessness and rent arrears in those council areas where the housing stock has been retained—that is, in the Waveney part of east Suffolk. When the Government made the decision, did they have regard to the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and the added responsibilities it places on local authorities?

East Suffolk Council is committed to providing as seamless a transition as possible, so that universal credit customers are not adversely affected. That said, as I have already mentioned, the service that is currently on offer will have to be reduced from 1 April. In future, the council will, in effect, act only as a signpost.

The draft model of universal support that Citizens Advice has developed looks very thorough. It goes above the assisted digital support and the personal budgeting support that is currently offered and that is central to the current package. There is some upset in the council that it has been criticised for not providing such a service, although it points out that it was never asked to do so.

The Citizens Advice offer includes a full advice and support service, as well as triage, call centres, face-to-face support, identity verification preparation for customers, and webchats. That is welcome, but as I have already mentioned the concern as to how viable this service will be, given the level of funding provided to Citizens Advice.

Nationally, the feedback I am receiving is that the quality of universal support across the country as a whole until now has been variable. The roll-out of universal credit has presented many challenges to everyone involved, which is certainly the case in Lowestoft. However, the one ray of light in Lowestoft, and one source of hope, was that local government and local charities had put in place a system of universal support that was an exemplar that could be replicated elsewhere, in line with the “test and learn” approach that the DWP recommends.

The fact that this system is being dismantled in a seemingly hasty way, and with no prior notice, is very disappointing. Local support requirements are best decided locally and not through a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach. I ask the Minister to take on board the concerns that I have outlined, which reflect local exasperation and disappointment. In future, the Government should work more closely and collegiately with those who have the task of rolling out universal credit in local areas—at the coalface—right across the country. They have a responsibility and a duty to universal credit customers to do that.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hosie, to serve under your chairmanship for, I think, the first time.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) for securing this important debate. He is a real champion of his local community, and he continues to raise issues in the House that are important not only to himself and his constituents but more widely. I completely understand that he wants to ensure that his constituents receive the support they need in the welfare system and, if required, further support to help them into work.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend and I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the Give us a Chance annual reception in Parliament, where the organisation launched its Communities that Work campaign to help even more social housing tenants into work, and I was very pleased to attend that event with him. Of course, across the Department of Work and Pensions network we already have jobcentres working closely with housing associations to support people in gaining new skills and to help them into work.

Let me turn to universal credit more widely. As my hon. Friend noted, universal credit rolled out in his area in 2016. I was very pleased to visit his local jobcentre in Lowestoft with him in September, and like him I was impressed by the commitment of the staff. In fact, I pay tribute to him, and I thank him and his staff, for the very real and positive interaction he has had over a long period with his local jobcentre.

My hon. Friend talked about issues that arose regarding the delivery of universal credit in his constituency in 2016. However, I hope he will also acknowledge that, over the last couple of years, we have made changes—positive changes—in supporting people on universal credit. I will just outline a few of those changes before moving on to talk in more detail about universal support, which I know he is keen for me to discuss.

In the 2017 Budget, we announced a £1.5 billion injection for universal credit. That came in earlier this year and meant that the seven-day waiting period before the activation of a universal credit claim was abolished. Also, advances of up to 100% of the estimated payment at the end of the first period are now available, interest-free and repayable over 12 months—that will be extended to 16 months in the future. There is also a two-week run-on of housing benefit, which is money that does not have to be repaid and that helps people who are currently receiving housing benefit with their cash flow.

In the Budget a few weeks ago, another net £4.5 billion over the scorecard period was injected into universal credit. I will pick out just two items. The first is that work allowance is increasing by £1,000 from next April, which will assist 2.4 million families. Secondly, as part of the managed migration process that my hon. Friend mentioned, there will be the two-week run-on of out-of-work DWP legacy benefits, which will assist around 1.1 million people.

My hon. Friend talked about the direct payment of rents. I know that he will welcome the fact that we now have the landlord portal in place. It was co-designed with a number of housing associations and allows for direct payments to social housing providers. By the end of this year, around 90% of all social housing stock will be covered by the landlord portal. Of course, work has also gone on to ensure that those who are in the private rented sector are also able to have their rent paid directly to their landlord, if that is appropriate. In addition, up to 85% of childcare costs are covered under universal credit, and it has been possible since earlier this year for individuals to upload information about those costs, so the process is much more efficient.

I hope my hon. Friend will agree that we have listened and acted to improve the system. He wrote to me some weeks ago, and I owe him a response, but I wanted to attend this debate and hear any further comments that he quite rightly wanted to make before I responded. If I am not able to give him satisfaction with my answers today, I will make sure that I do so in writing to him in the next few days.

Let me turn to universal support. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is an incredibly valuable service, particularly when it is delivered in the right, targeted way. Since 2017, universal support has been delivered by individual local authorities. Some of them have chosen to deliver this service directly themselves; some—around a third of local authorities—have chosen to outsource the service to third parties, such as Citizens Advice. I believe that certain local councils have set up a model whereby Citizens Advice takes the lead in providing personal budgeting support.

Although I appreciate that some local councils are doing good work in the area of universal support, provision across the country is, if I may say so, mixed. My hon. Friend highlighted all the good work that has been going on in his local area, and of course I commend that work and all the key stakeholders who have been involved in it. I will come on to say how they can perhaps continue to work together.

However, based on the information we have received from local authorities across the country, take-up of universal support in 2017-18 was around 30% of what the DWP had forecast it would be. Clearly, what we needed to ensure, and what we want to ensure, is that we have a system in which more people receive this support and that we reach out and assist the people—particularly the vulnerable—who ultimately need it. My hon. Friend referred to the need for us to reach out to those who are particularly vulnerable.

I will just set out how the Department took this decision about the new partnership with Citizens Advice. As my hon. Friend and others will be aware, for some time now key stakeholders have been quite vocal that, in its current format, universal support was not delivering on its aims and that claimants were ultimately missing out on this key support. More recently, the Work and Pensions Committee opened an inquiry into universal support, and I provided it with oral evidence in July. The Committee has since published its report, and the Department will of course respond to all the points it raises.

In recent months, Citizens Advice and a number of other charities, think-tanks and MPs have shared evidence with the Government showing that the type of support available, and how people can access it, differs depending on where people live. As the Government have continued this “test and learn” approach to universal credit, the design of the support has needed to change.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, it was announced on 1 October that from April 2019 Citizens Advice will deliver a more comprehensive and consistent support service, independent of Government, to help ensure everyone can access the support they need to complete a universal credit claim, no matter where they live. Of course, the DWP maintains close partnerships with local authorities in many areas—for example, in identifying customers with safeguarding, housing and health needs, and in initiatives such as troubled families support.

Local authorities are funded for the current year to deliver universal support, and they will continue to do so until the end of March 2019. I raise this point because my hon. Friend asked what would happen in future years. The grant agreement for local authorities is only ever for one year, and there should not necessarily be an expectation that funding will continue beyond this year of allocation. Citizens Advice has been asked to run alongside the arrangement that local authorities currently have in place to get up to speed, so that it is ready to deliver from 1 April with no gap in service provision. My hon. Friend raised the issue of funding for next year. Some £39 million will be provided to Citizens Advice, and money is also going in this year to help it get up to speed.

Local Citizens Advice already has strong working relationships with key partners such as local authorities and housing providers, and will be working closely with them as the service is launched. Citizens Advice will build on where good practice exists, such as local good partnership working. From the perspective of Citizens Advice, it is of course independent of Government, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, the Citizens Advice in his area has strong working relationships with key partners. I certainly expect that it will work closely with those key partners as the service is launched, and build on where good practice exists, including local good practice.

The Work and Pensions Committee put out its report on universal support on 28 October this year, and I will read a short extract from it:

“The Department’s announcement that the contract for Universal Support will pass to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland in 2018/19 and 2019/20 will help take pressure off already-stretched local authorities.”

My hon. Friend talked about what will happen beyond that period. Clearly, we will look to see how the partnership we have in place with Citizens Advice progresses. I completely appreciate that, as we move into managed migration, we need to make sure we have an offer that is robust and sufficient to assist people.

In conclusion, the Department for Work and Pensions wants the strong partnerships with local authorities to continue. We want universal support to be delivered well and consistently across the country, and I certainly expect there to be continued local working between Citizens Advice and other key stakeholders on the ground. For me, this is the start of a conversation with my hon. Friend, and as time progresses and Citizens Advice develops its partnerships nationally and locally, I will be happy to continue this dialogue. As I said, I will, of course, write to him in the coming days about any of the points that I have not been able to answer.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.