The Welfare Reform Bill is back to the Commons this week at the Report Stage. One of the most dangerous provisions relates to including Housing Benefit in the new Universal Credit.
Under the current Housing Benefit rules, council and housing association tenants can choose to have their Housing Benefit paid directly to their landlord. There is also a provision, where a tenant is in arrears of rent by eight weeks or more, for the council to request that Housing Benefit is paid directly to the landlord. This is a vital provision that ensures that the rent is paid and not spent on other items. Tenants on benefits have a tight budget and with energy and other bills rising, there is a real risk of non-payment and growing rent arrears.
This will lead to the need to reinstate an army of rent arrears staff and could undermine the credit rating of housing associations who need to borrow to build new homes. Shelter Scotland recently warned that the Scottish Government's target of building 6000 new homes was already looking challenging. This will make it even less likely. The UK Government appears to believe that Direct Debit is the solution. It isn't. Many tenants don't have bank accounts and even if they do, Direct Debit doesn't guarantee payment of rent.
UNISON Scotland represents some 2000 staff working on Housing Benefit. It appears that the DWP believes it can administer this benefit through call centres instead of having local offices where Housing Benefit staff can speak directly to claimants, explain issues, answer queries and inspect documents (such as tenancy agreements) which otherwise would have to trusted to the post or scanned. There are real equality challenges for those with disabilities about losing local offices and staff and many vulnerable claimants may find it more difficult to access the Universal Credit system. More on this in our briefing to MPs.
The cuts in Housing Benefit will have a serious impact on many tenants in Scotland and across the UK. They are bad enough, but these administrative changes will have far reaching consequences for social housing in Scotland.