Agenda item

Welfare Reform Update


That the Committee notes the report and proactive work undertaken by the Council, together with its partners, to mitigate the full impact of welfare reforms from falling upon vulnerable households.


The Team Manager - Advice & Homeless Service introduced the report giving the latest position with the reforms being introduced to the social security system and actions taken locally to provide help and support to affected residents in Flintshire.


He explained that many of the concerns around the impact of changes had been identified at an earlier stage and that various activities had been put in place to target and support those affected, particularly the more vulnerable households.  He provided information on the effects of the Benefit Cap and Spare Room Subsidy (‘bedroom tax’) to date, as detailed in the report.  On the latter, it was noted that an outcome was awaited on a proposed change in legislation which would reduce the number of people having a reduction in their Housing Benefit.  Information was provided on the Council Tax Reduction Scheme where there was concern around the level of future funding from the Welsh Government (WG).  On the Discretionary Assistance Fund, it was reported that funding would be available from WG to continue with the scheme from April 2015 onwards and that 66% of applications made in Flintshire had been successful.


During an update on Personal Independence Payments (PIP), it was reported that the DWP had committed to tackling lengthy delays experienced by some claimants and that a large-scale reassessment of Disability Living Allowance (which would be transferred to PIP) in the UK would impact on the number of claimants within Flintshire.  The report set out measures being taken by the Council to help claimants to access the necessary advice and support.


The Team Manager - Advice & Homeless Service gave an update on the rollout of Universal Credit where concerns had previously been raised over the impact on households if national IT systems were to fail.  He welcomed the continued phased rollout of Universal Credit and the introduction of a ‘Local Delivery Agreement’ with the Council and its partners, and went on to say that the model introduced in Flintshire on how individuals could access personal budgeting support was to be used nationwide.  He spoke of the need for further discussion and progression on Universal Credit, with some improvements having already been introduced.


An update on Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) gave the statistics to date and reported on involvement by the Council’s Housing Benefits section in a pan-Wales project to share Flintshire’s approach to DHP which was regarded as good practice.  An overview was given of the various workstreams which were set out in the report.


The Neighbourhood Housing Manager provided a summary of the operational side, which was detailed in the appendix to the report.  It was noted that eight out of ten tenants in Flintshire affected by the reforms were making payments on their rent accounts to try to address the shortfall and Table 2 showed the number of tenants impacted by the spare room subsidy who were in rent arrears (including some in that position prior to the reforms).  Agreement had previously been reached by the Committee for the Council to take a balanced view on tenants in arrears and to judge each case individually to find the right solution.  Reference was also made to the decision made by the Committee on the allocation of properties, and the need for Member feedback on whether to continue with this policy given the likelihood for most individuals to accept the first property offered to them.


The Neighbourhood Housing Manager summarised the key findings on the cost of mitigating the impact of welfare reforms in Flintshire, mainly in terms of staff resources.  She also reported on the findings of two pilot projects carried out in Salford and Warrington on preparing tenants for Universal Credit where the former had indicated a better success rate (with a greater level of resources) than the latter.


On behalf of the Committee, the Chairman thanked the officers for the detailed report and said that the range of work undertaken to help vulnerable households in facing the challenges of welfare reforms, was recognised.


The Cabinet Member for Housing said that she remained in agreement with the decision made by the Committee in January 2013 to allocate Council properties based on housing need.  She raised concerns about the increase in children in need figures and referred to the statistics for August 2014 where it was reported that 82% of tenants impacted by the spare room subsidy were in rent arrears.


On the spare room subsidy, Councillor Paul Shotton referred to the lack of smaller properties available and raised concerns around IT issues on the rollout of Universal Credit and the need to submit claims online.


Councillor Amanda Bragg welcomed the comprehensive report which was easy to read and commented on the Council’s duty of care in relation to homelessness.  The Neighbourhood Housing Manager said that each case was assessed individually and that the preferred approach was to work with individuals to help manage their circumstances to avoid costly Court action, however the Council did not have the same duty in cases of intentional homelessness.  The Team Manager - Advice & Homeless Service agreed to provide a response separately on the percentage of DHP funding used to date.


On Universal Credit, Councillor Rosetta Dolphin sought clarification on the potential for direct payments of the housing cost element to be made to social landlords and pointed out that many tenants did not want the responsibility of managing their own housing payments.  The Team Manager - Advice & Homeless Service said there was provision for the landlord to make the request at the start of the claiming process if it was felt that the claimant did not have the necessary skills to manage their own rent payments.  Consultation was currently open to seek views on allowing DWP to share information with social landlords to enable them to support tenants claiming Universal Credit.  Councillor Dolphin referred to the number of tenants impacted by the spare room subsidy who were in rent arrears up to £300 and felt that this particular group needed to be addressed to avoid further escalation and that direct payments to tenants could impact further on rent arrears.


Councillor George Hardcastle remarked on the statistics in the report of tenants affected by the spare room subsidy who had failed to make up the shortfall in rent and the challenge in encouraging more to downsize in view of the lack of smaller properties available.


The Chief Officer (Community & Enterprise) said that there was no simple solution and that welfare reforms affected around 700 of the Council’s tenants with some opting not to downsize as they preferred to remain in their current areas.  However, there were a number of initiatives being taken to improve the situation such as the Council house building programme, which would prioritise smaller properties, and the procurement exercise on the Strategic Housing and Regeneration Programme.


Councillor Paul Cunningham welcomed the early intervention steps being taken by officers and asked about the number of tenants who had fallen into the ‘won’t pay’ rather than ‘can’t pay’ category of rent arrears and had refused the support offered by the Council.  The Neighbourhood Housing Manager agreed to provide this information.


Concerns were raised by Councillor Peter Curtis at the impact of welfare reforms on more vulnerable tenants and the stress associated with rent arrears.


On the spare room subsidy, Councillor Richard Jones referred to the proposed amendment for under-occupying social housing tenants to be exempt from having their Housing Benefit reduced if they could not find a smaller home and asked whether a rebate would be awarded.  The Team Manager - Advice & Homeless Service felt that this was unlikely, if the proposed amendment was passed.  He agreed to provide a separate response on the risk to the Council in relation to funding required for the Council Tax Reduction Scheme.  On the Flintshire Advice Referral Gateway, the 12-month post within Flintshire Citizens’ Advice Bureau was funded mainly by the WG and partly by the DWP.  There was no guarantee of funding beyond that, however the results of a comprehensive review on the impact of the Referral Gateway were currently being assessed and the outcomes would guide future funding applications.


Councillor Jones asked whether a more personal approach should be taken to support some individuals in rent arrears where a range of issues was involved.  The Neighbourhood Housing Manager said that the Council worked closely with other support agencies and that a third party could be appointed by the Court to help manage an individual’s money if needed.  She added that cases were considered on an individual basis and details of any specific cases could be referred to her for a fuller response.


Following questions from Councillor Ian Dunbar, the Team Manager - Advice & Homeless Service provided explanation on the report produced by Sheffield Hallam University Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research which would help inform WG policies.  He added that the WG was due to publish its Child Poverty Strategy at the end of November 2014, which would take account of the good work being undertaken by Councils such as Flintshire, to mitigate the impacts of the welfare reforms.


Councillor Jim Falshaw referred to the Welfare Reform Response Team who had directly targeted over 250 vulnerable households between May 2013 and August 2014 and asked how many families had engaged with the service.  The Team Manager - Advice & Homeless Service agreed to provide details separately and said that the majority of households who responded had benefited from the service, for example receiving help to switch energy suppliers.  Although resources did not allow for ongoing support and cases were closed when the support reached a natural end, households were able to renew contact with the service if needed.


The Chairman thanked the officers for their work, particularly the Welfare Response, Welfare Rights and Rent Arrears teams.




That the Committee notes the report and proactive work undertaken by the Council, together with its partners, to mitigate the full impact of welfare reforms from falling upon vulnerable households.

Supporting documents: