First Choice Homes Oldham has seen the impact of Universal Credit first hand, and it’s not pretty. Chief executive Vinny Roche argues the time has come for some fresh thinking and the courage to find a different approach
IT’S been almost a decade since the concept of Universal Credit (UC) was first outlined in the Centre for Social Justice’s Dynamic Benefits report.
Yet 2019 could well be the most crucial year to date for the Government’s flagship welfare programme – and represents perhaps the best opportunity for those of us with a passion for social justice to make our case for meaningful reform of the system.
The new work and pensions secretary has promised to learn from past errors, and while the Government remains committed to the UC rollout, there is new money to address challenges around its implementation.
What is clear is that the system in its current form does not work for thousands of families.
As one of the first places in the country to trial UC, Oldham has received its fair share of national headlines.
Since full-service UC rollout began a year ago, our arrears have risen by £473,000 across all our customers. Almost two thirds of arrears come from just 2,500 customers currently on Universal Credit – from a stock of more than 11,500 homes.
We find it takes around five months for people making the switch to the new benefit system to establish regular payment patterns – that’s a long time for families to live not knowing if they are going to be able to pay their rent.
We also know that this is only the tip of the iceberg.
Even if people on UC are paying rent, that doesn’t mean they are coping. It is only when we get behind people’s front door that we see the true scale of the impact – with parents going hungry to make sure their children enjoy a hot meal, or families turning to loan sharks so they don’t have to choose between heating and eating.
In the past 18 months alone, we have issued 555 foodbank vouchers.
Our experience shows that those who make the transition best tend to have strong family or support networks to help them through – they can borrow money for food and rent until regular UC payments kick in.
It is the most vulnerable customers – those with mental or physical health issues or challenges around substance abuse – that slip through the cracks.
The welfare should be a safety net for those in the greatest need. A system that is complex to navigate and provides support in five weeks’ time is not fit for purpose.
The new year should bring with it an opportunity for fresh thinking.
Across landlords, local authorities and government we must be brave enough to try a different approach. Standing by and watching the current situation unfold cannot be an option.
We should look to work with the Government, but also explore on a regional and local level how we can work collaboratively to do more.
That could be a coordinated approach to talking to customers and delivering a consistent message, or reforms to the PRS market, where tenants are most at risk of being made homeless.
Any partnership approach should also involve the business community.
For those moving in and out of employment, UC can be tough to negotiate. People simply don’t know how much they will have in their pocket month to month.
Business has a role to play in paying people a decent wage and giving them security of employment.
We see first-hand how zero hours contract or agency work leaves people in limbo.
Housing associations can provide a bridge between like-minded businesses and our customers.
By better understanding the skills employers require we can give customers access to the right training and giving people a better chance of securing long-term careers.
Vinny Roche is the chief executive of First Choice Homes Oldham