UC and payment direct; turning back?


It is the mother of all “I told you so” moments. Despite claiming there will be no turning back on universal credit, this week it was revealed that the government is supporting a scheme which does just that.
One of the core planks of universal credit – and the element that provoked the most derision among people working in social housing – was the idea that a benefit payment should be paid to tenants instead of straight to their landlords. Paid once a month (which, by the way, hardly anyone in low-paid work ever is), the single cash lump sum transferred into a personal bank account is then the responsibility of the recipient. They must meet their responsibilities out of it, and take control of their finances: rent, power, council tax, food, clothing. It’s up to them to manage the money, even when there’s scarcely enough in the pot to cope.

Roll housing benefit into this payment and you create an artificial housing crisis: cash-strapped tenants could prioritise heating their homes and buying their children shoes over the rent. Private landlords stop renting to “flaky” benefit recipients, social landlords’ rental income dries up and (because they are forced to renege on their own borrowing commitments) stop building new affordable housing. As housing associations have said since day one, what’s the point in all of that just to take the moral high ground (or, worse, to pick out the “deserving” from the “undeserving”

It was never going to work. Early trials immediately exposed the vast margin for error. In Oxford, a group of housing association tenants who had been carefully persuaded to test out the benefit payment system in its early form found the local authority failed to transfer housing benefit payments until after their rent had already been taken from their accounts, by which point many were overdrawn by hundreds of pounds for the very first time in their life. No wonder so many immediately withdrew from the scheme.

And yet, the government refused to blink. Or did they?

We now know that housing association First Choice Homes Oldham has launched a pilot scheme that encourages government to pay housing benefit direct to landlords once again. Known as the “trusted partner status” project, the scheme allows the housing association to identify tenants likely to fall into arrears and apply to the Department for Work and Pensions for an “alternative payment arrangement” (APA) – in plainspeak, the direct payment of housing benefit to the social landlord.

Already in place is a tripwire system that allows social landlords to request an APA if a tenant is two months or more behind on their rent. But this is the first time government has accepted that a landlord ought to be able to manage their own income under the system.
The DWP says that if a landlord is putting large numbers of tenants straight on to APAs to protect their bottom line they could lose their “trusted partner” status. Very many social housing tenants could be considered vulnerable when compared to, say, a middle-income owner-occupied family, less so when compared to a single mother trapped in temporary accommodation. Where do the comparisons start and end?

For all the questions this throws up, it is a recognition that political ideas can easily meet their nemesis in the implementation. There are only 53,970 universal credit claimants on the DWP’s caseloads but the exceptions are already being granted – and more landlords are due to join the pilot scheme.