I was speaking at the Institute of Rating, Revenues and Valuation conference in Crieff yesterday. These are the professionals who are having to grapple with the consequences of the Welfare Reform Bill and I was talking about the staffing implications.
There are many challenges facing local government staff in this area of work, but the largest is implementing Universal Credit. This brings together seven different benefits with the aim of simplifying the system. Sadly, the government does not appear to understand that just sticking things together does not automatically simplify them. As they are already discovering, the complexity of the computer system alone is daunting, with out of work and in-work benefits being administered for millions of claimants.
The government believes that 80% of claimants will be able to administer their claims on-line. This is fantasy because:
• the overwhelming number of claimants don't have a computer. Even with limited library access most don't know how to use one. Not to mention poor connectivity in many parts of Scotland.
• The government is always going on about choice. But Dumfries & Galloway Council surveyed their 'customers' and only 2% wanted online access.
•Many claimants don’t have transactional bank accounts.
•Weekly payments will now be paid monthly in arrears. There will be huge issues managing family finances for the first few weeks.
The impact is not just on Housing Benefit staff who face an uncertain future. The Council Tax is being devolved and cut at the same time. Hard pressed Scottish Government and council budgets have plugged the gap for the first year, but that will become increasingly difficult in the years ahead. The social fund is to be be administered locally at a time when other welfare benefits are being cut and a single fraud investigation service created.
Add to this the local economic impact estimated at some £2.5bn in Scotland alone. This will impact on local businesses and councils who will have to provide even more services. Not to mention the voluntary advice agencies like CAB.
There are huge consequences for housing staff in councils and housing associations. Housing associations will receive £33.5m less per year with serious consequences for housing investment, already at crisis levels. For claimants the uprating shift from RPI to CPI means £50.3m less from this alone. The inevitable result will be a massive increase in arrears and bad debt. If will also impact on the Scottish Government's homeless target with CoSLA estimating an additional 3000 homeless presentations in Scotland.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations (SFHA) summed this up well in their evidence to the Scottish Parliament's Welfare Reform Committee, "we are seriously concerned about the impact that the introduction of Universal Credit will have upon the way that tenant households manage their finances and live their lives, as well as the serious business and financial challenges it will present to landlords".
As usual it will be council staff who will have to pick up the pieces. What is needed is local delivery retaining the face to face contact that is so important to these claimants. Right first time should be the approach, not leaving claimants to manage their way through the complexities of on-line systems or remote call centre operations.