Ms Hubbard representing the Citizens Advice Bureau and Mr Leese from the Department for Work and Pensions) joined the meeting to help address the issues raised by members.
The Benefits Manager provided information relating to the impact on both benefit claimants and Newcastle under Lyme Borough Council since the introduction of Universal Credit.
Impact on residents
At 11 July 2019 the number of people nationally receiving Universal Credit was 2.3 million. This is a 5% increase from 13 June 2019. At this time the number of people receiving Universal credit in Newcastle was 2817 and for Kidsgrove 1275.
The major issues identified since the roll out of the benefit included:
· Wrong advice about which benefit should be claimed
· 1 in 5 claimants do not receive their benefits on time (National Audit Office 2018)
· Failure to pay housing costs because tenancy agreements are lost
· Tenants without a standard tenancy agreement are being refused housing costs
· Housing costs incorrectly calculated
· Difficulties establishing and maintaining a claim due to no computer access or lack of digital skills
· Issues with the award of disability related elements of UC
· Communications with the DWP and processing of evidence
· Housing benefit paid to claimant and not being paid over to Landlords to pay rent
· UC assessment period not falling in line with four weekly paid salaries, meaning two salary payments could fall within one month’s assessment period.
· Excessive deductions from UC for court orders etc., leaving a claimant with little money for that month
These issues, together with the impact on local residents, were being addressed by the DWP. The CAB received funding to support disability claimants.
Impact on NULBC
Following the introduction of UC the staff/work ratio had seen changes. The Housing Benefit caseload in April 2013 prior to the introduction of UC was 7945 claims. In December 2018 the start of full service, the case load had fallen to 6894. The caseload had further reduced to 6101 at 31 July 2019.
This reduction had resulted in an impact on the resources needed within the benefit team. Staffing levels had reduced since 2013 by way of flexible retirement. Since December 2018, following the substantial loss of new Housing Benefit claims, more resource had been put into the recovery of Housing Benefit overpayments. The administration of Pensioner claims and Council Tax Reduction was still a significant part of the workload. Staff had also been allocated additional work from within the Revenues and Benefit service.
Future resourcing needs and service delivery model for the benefit service are currently being addressed within the restructure of the Resource and Support Services directorate to implement more flexible and integrated ways of working that offer improved efficiency and resilience as well as providing a better customer experience.
The reduction in new claims had also had an impact on the number of claimants contacting the Customer Services Team.
All benefit and customer services staff at NULBC are fully trained to provide the correct advice regarding claiming the correct benefit. In this respect a secondment arrangement had been in place since May 2019 for two members of the Revenues and Benefits Customer Service Team to support the CAB with the project ‘Help to Claim’.
Job Centre Plus, Aspire Housing and other agencies also provided support to UC claimants.
Housing Benefit administration was mainly funded by the Department for Work and Pensions by way of an annual Administration Grant. NULCs grant for 2019/20 was £311,345 compared with £547,327 in 2013/14.
As local authority caseloads reduce the admin grant will also reduce so that the grant will only support the administration of pensioner claims.
Members raised issues concerning budgeting for claimants which had resulted in constituents having to access the foodbank. In response the DWP representative explained that payments were made in arrears which included a 5 week wait for benefits. Although an advance payment could be made this was recovered. Claimants experiencing hardship were signposted to projects such as Moneywise.
Councillors were concerned that, with the reduction in staffing levels NULBC would be less able to support claimants and asked how long present staffing levels could be sustained without redundancies. It was confirmed that staffing would not be reduced beyond natural wastage and that teams would be further integrated. A consultation exercise had been completed with managers and it was agreed that this report would be considered by this Committee.
Members raised the issue of claimants who could not complete application on line and the representative from DWP confirmed that there was also a telephone service available. A member suggested that funding for a shared service in respect of digital exclusion should be explored.
Agreed: That the report be noted and a further report concerning staffing proposals be submitted to this Committee for consideration.