The Housing Benefit service may not be the most fashionable public service but we in UNISON know they are the unsung heroes of benefit administration. Delivering the most complex of benefits in record time based on claimants bring in a variety original documents in to inspect.
The Universal Credit, bringing together six different benefits as part of the current Welfare Bill, promises welcome simplicity but at the price of losing local housing expertise and face to face contact.
A recent survey by the Local Government Association found that Councils had face to face contact in a range of 25% to 80% of claims judging on their local circumstances. This is part of experienced system thinking and helps reduce errors and speed up claims for vulnerable. A single over or under payment can generate real administrative and personal difficulties for individuals. DWP assumes that 99% of Universal Credit in future claims can be dealt with by phone or on-line. Is this realistic? Who wants to trust their rent book, tenancy agreement, passport, birth certificate, immigration papers and other papers to the post in one go, and will it come back in time to pay the next week’s rent to the landlord?
There are also 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. There is also the issue of the cost of phone calls (not 0800 numbers but 0845 numbers) and access to the internet for claims and updates.
Housing Benefit services are often combined with Council Tax, Council Tax Benefit and other benefits as part of a general revenue and benefits service which often is on a long contract (4-8 years) with a private company. A UNISON survey in the summer of 2011 based on Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that 23% of authorities have external contracts to deliver Housing Benefit that would have to be broken for a transfer to Universal Credit.
Finally, there are also 20,000 Housing Benefit staff who want to know their future.