An open letter to DWP Neil Couling regarding Universal Credit

by CARIDON LANDLORD SOLUTIONS

13:28 PM, 15th May 2017
About 2 years ago

An open letter to DWP Neil Couling regarding Universal Credit

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An open letter to DWP Neil Couling regarding Universal Credit

Many landlords are experiencing issues with Universal Credit. The communication is poor, landlords are putting in APAs, but unable to communicate with DWP to find out the process of the APA.

As a result many landlords have tenants with high rent arrears – the system needs changing as landlords seem to be punished for providing a much needed service to the social sector.

Bill Irvine has penned a very accurate letter to Neil Couling DWP, please read the interesting letter and feel free to tweet and forward to your peers.

Open letter to:

Mr Neil Couling
Director General
Universal Credit Implementation

Dear Mr Couling

Landlords, throughout Great Britain, are experiencing unsustainable rental loss as a direct result of Universal Credit, particularly, in relation to the way in which the “housing element” is being administered. Despite phoning, e-mailing and complaining to Jobcentre Plus and regional Complaints & Resolution teams, our collective efforts have proved fruitless, frustrating and disheartening. The situation is getting worse, especially in areas, like e.g. London, Great Yarmouth, Inverness and East Lothian, where “Full Service” Universal Credit is now operating and arrears are running at 90%. Landlords understandably fear that as Full Service expands throughout GB so will these worrying problems.

Nearly every single tenant owes rent, either through the delay in first payment, which can take 6-12 weeks to process. In some cases, tenants are simply misspending the housing element, rather than using the funds to reduce or extinguish their rental liabilities. When that occurs, landlords make application for redirection of the funds. Many of those applications are mislaid, take months to process or are simply ignored. In the most alarming cases, DWP has simply ignored the red flags and pleas, raised by landlords and continued to make payments to delinquent tenants in the full knowledge £000’s of public funds was being used inappropriately.

Not surprisingly, the RLA and NLA are both reporting an increasing number of private sector landlords and letting agents refusing to accommodate Universal Credit reliant tenants. Lenders are also stipulating, that funds will not be provided where tenancies are intended for benefit tenants.

Was the Alternative Payment Arrangement scheme (APAs) not designed to safeguard landlords from these very problems; avoid the problem of vulnerable tenants mismanaging their finances; and prevent delinquent tenants from misusing public funds, putting at jeopardy their tenancy and exposing them to the vagaries of homelessness?

As Director General, you must be acutely aware and surely worried by what’s happening?

Evidence of repeated misuse of public funds is building as “Full Service” roll out starts to bite. Landlords like Caridon Property Solutions have been copying you into exchanges with your staff, over many months, and, in the past week, have drawn your attention to two cases involving nearly £12, 000 in rent arrears, caused by your staff failing to respond appropriately to multiple APA requests by landlords and their agents.

DWP’s excuses to date have Included: “We can’t speak to Landlords or agents without the consent of the tenant.” ……………A “Special Payment” (as compensation for rental loss) is not merited in such cases as the tenant is the primary cause of the problem”…………..“This is essentially a civil dispute between tenant & landlord”

Frankly, none of these statements reflect the true cause of the problem. It’s unquestionably, DWP maladministration of its own scheme, accompanied by complete ambivalence to the predicament of landlords’ reliance on these funds for their livelihood and ability to pay lenders. Had your staff acted in accordance with the scheme you created, most of these substantial losses could have been avoided.

The APA scheme was designed specifically for landlords. It requires our members to apply using a Non-secure UC 47 form which can either be sent by e-mail or FREEPOST. This version of the form was designed to “start a dialogue with landlords and agents”. It’s supposed to prompt a call from your staff, during which, the landlords’ bank details and the merits of the application can be discussed. You also provide a telephone number for landlords to call when they’re seeking an update on the progress of their application. Given the above, its’ absurd to suggest you can’t speak to landlords, without the tenant’s consent.

Landlords, having complied with the scheme’s requirements, in all respects, are surely entitled to be able to ask for progress updates; reasons for refusal; reasons for later redirection back to tenants, without discussion. Your colleague Mike Baker, Operations Director, in August 2015 acknowledged the landlords’ rights in this respect and confirmed to me, in writing, that on receipt of an APA request the “housing element” would be immediately suspended, pending a decision on the question of to whom the payment should be made. His commitment has not been honoured.

Members have repeatedly raised with your staff, concerns over the lack of independence, impartiality and objectivity during the internal stages of your “Complaints Process”. In your responses to members, you claim that cases are considered on their individual merits. However, if you examine the common thread of each response, it’s really nothing other than a standard reply, crafted by someone in your Policy Unit. It was your Policy Unit who prescribed “Special Payments” were NOT to be used in landlord APA applications for compensation. Interference of this type completely undermines the notion of cases being considered on their individual merits and suggests more of a sham complaints process.

The third stage of the Complaints Process (Independent Case Examiner) is truly the first time the complaint is looked at independently. Past reports from ICE suggest 50% of complaints are fully supported with a further 25% partially supported. At first, this looked a promising way to prosecute a complaint but we’ve since found it takes 15 months, on average, from referral to conclusion stage. A classic case of justice delayed, justice denied!

As an ex COSLA advisor to the Housing Benefit Standing Committee, Westminster I’ve spent 20 years dealing with DWP hierarchy, including the Policy Unit team in the Adelphi, London. My colleagues and I had a very fruitful relationship with this team who demonstrated a high level of knowledge and commitment to tackling and resolving problems. I’ve yet to see anything like that from you and your support team with maybe 1 or 2 exceptions.

Five years ago, I wrote an article “Hitting the DWP brick wall” which was published by the SFHA and private sector magazines, predicting the biggest problem with Universal Credit would be your department’s remote and ambivalent administration of the scheme. If anything, I underestimated just how problematic it would be.

In my opinion, something drastic is needed to overhaul the current APA and associated Complaints Processes as both are currently unfit for purpose. Apart from traveling the country, speaking to staff in the new Full Service areas, what are you doing to address the legitimate concerns of landlords?

Bill Irvine

Update from Editor

Please Click Here to download letter of response from Neil Couling

 

Contact Sherrelle for offline Universal Credit advice

Sherrelle is an independent consultant and is recommended by Property118 for landlords who require professional advice and assistance in regards to dealing with Universal credit related matters


Comments

CARIDON LANDLORD SOLUTIONS

11:31 AM, 16th June 2017
About 2 years ago

BILL ADDITIONAL RESPONSE:

Good morning

Firstly, I should say I was pleased to see Neil Couling following through with his commitment of responding to my original letter. However, I feel obliged to comment on what he's said:

Dear Mr Couling

I appreciate you taking the time to respond to my earlier letter but, after waiting a month, I expected something more precise and credible, from you, the Director General.

You claim my views are not representative of what’s happening and are based purely on the dozens of cases presented by my landlord clients. You may have missed it, but the House of Commons library produced a report, only this week, “Housing Costs in Universal Credit” - http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/SN06547#fullreport

Chapter 3 of the report - “Early experiences of implementation” – echoes exactly what I was referring to in paragraphs 2 & 3 of my letter. It confirms, throughout Great Britain, rent arrears are going through the roof and refers specifically to what’s been happening in East Lothian, Great Yarmouth, and the London Borough of Croydon (all “Full Service” areas) mentioned in my letter. It also cites the chaos experienced in East Lothian and the London Borough of Croydon, caused primarily by - the move to Full Service delivery.

You well know, in the case of Croydon, the Council reported a loss of £2.5 M in rental revenue, solely from its temporary accommodation tenants. The report forced DWP Ministers to concede paying “housing costs” to temporary accommodation clients was unworkable, under Universal Credit and promised to revert administration back to Housing Benefit. Whilst the change is warmly welcomed, it should never have happened in the first place.

Why did it happen? DWP chose to ignore the advice of experienced Homeless Accommodation staff from councils, charities etc. experienced in that area.

At paragraph 3.2 of the report it refers to the fact, the Work & Pension Committee decided, in February 2017 to re-launch its inquiry into Universal Credit due to: “compelling evidence of the problems in the rollout of Universal Credit in its recent follow ups”.

So, contrary to your suggestion I was misrepresenting the situation, the facts in the H of C report, suggest my claims were entirely accurate, and expose your criticism as unwarranted.

In relation to my criticism of the APA process, I outlined the concerns of many clients who had experienced significant rental loss, despite having applied for “Landlord Managed Payments” using the designated UC 47 non-secure, supported by evidence of Tier 1.8 criteria. Having heard nothing, they contacted DWP for an update, using the dedicated numbers supplied, by no less than DWP in its APA paraphernalia. Armed with their tenants’ National Insurance number and DOB, they expected to be given an update on the LMP’s progress. Instead, they’ve been consistently told your staff can’t converse with them, without the “explicit consent” of the tenant, who, in some of the cases referred have already misused £8 – 10K of costs designed to reduce or extinguish their rental liability. Landlords simply can’t sustain such levels of loss.

Given the fact, all landlords had complied with the APA process, created by DWP and were looking for simply an update on their application and an assurance the housing element would not continue being paid to tenants who had already accrued 2 months’ rent, I’m at a complete loss to understand why DWP is insistent the claimant’s explicit consent is a critical factor, and without it, feels obliged to continue awarding more housing element payments when, it’s known the offending tenants will simply repeat the misuse?

I should add, I don’t have a monopoly on that view, having spoken to many staff in your “Complaints & Resolutions teams” who are evidencing, daily, public monies being misused on a disgraceful scale, mainly at cost of landlords, many of whom have lenders to pay. The fact only one third of the 530,000 UC claimants have “housing costs” is a blessing at this stage. What concerns landlords most is, as Full-Service rollout continues to expand, so will the numbers of LMP requests; associated delays & complaints; increased rental losses; and an ever increasing drain on the public purse, caused by DWP maladministration; something the Secretary of State has a duty to protect.

What I find most disappointing is the comments in the last paragraph where you confirm you’re no longer willing to honour the commitment made in August 2015 by your then depute, Mike Baker, Operations Director. You recall, I wrote to you, expressing concern about APA administration and the fact the “housing element” was not being suspended, pending a decision on the merits of the LMP application. I cited support for my suggestion by referring to the Judgement of Upper-tier Judge Jacobs (R (H) 2/08) relating to what happens in HB administration. Near the end of the decision the highly regarded Judge makes some entirely sensible recommendations to HB administration staff, which I’ve used to secure compensation for PRS landlords, sometimes after referral to the LGO.

In that case, when a landlord applies for redirection of payment, based on HBR 95 or 96 criteria, they‘re considered “persons affected” attracting rights. As such, when they request redirection under “safeguarding” principles, HB should be suspended, to allow council staff to contact both tenant & landlord to establish the facts, before deciding on who should be the “payee”. The decision rests with the “Decision Maker”. Claimant consent is NOT required but each have a right to appeal if they disagree with the decision. Once made, that decision can only be changed by way of revision/supersession – in other words, a mistake has been discovered or a change in circumstances.

You passed the matter to Mr Baker to respond. He, after taking legal advice, agreed that payment, in the case of UC, would be suspended if the next due payment was 5 or more days away. You implicitly agreed with that view, which I communicated to more than 1000 website members. Other than your opinion, nothing else has changed and the regulation (Regulation 58) permits suspension of the UC award or in part (i.e. the housing element).

As you well know, I’ve been a Universal Credit advocate, mainly because I agree, the current legacy system is broken and needs replaced. My letter to you was a genuine attempt to assist you in your stated aims of listening, learning and improving UC’s delivery. In response, your spirited defence of Universal Credit scheme principles evades the specific concerns raised, representing, in my view, a missed opportunity to genuinely engage with landlords concerns and secure improvements to a scheme which currently is failing them. In some case, especially where Full Services is operating, the extent of losses could bankrupt some, if the situation I’ve described is not addressed ASAP.

You’ll not be surprised to hear that I’ll continue to support my landlord clients by encouraging them to challenge your department’s mishandling of the housing element and, in that regard will continue engaging with your CRT staff.

CARIDON LANDLORD SOLUTIONS

11:38 AM, 16th June 2017
About 2 years ago

I would be interested in your views on both Neil's response and Bills follow up.
I have read Neil's response and to me it seems like DWP have failed to address the points raised by Bill and private landlords.

Paul Cunningham

22:10 PM, 20th June 2017
About 2 years ago

I am the Chair of the Eastern Landlords Association. Great Yarmouth had Universal Credit imposed on it in April 2016. This has proved to be disastrous with increased use of food banks, highest recorded number of homeless and the introduction of a soup kitchen. The council now has arrears totalling £200k from their own tenants and my members are refusing to accommodate tenants who are in the process of making a UC claim.
Claims are taking up to 12 weeks to be paid and the APA process is proving to be useless . The result of which landlords are fed up with increasing arrears which is causing severe hardship for them as well as their tenants.
The response from DWP is just another example of not listening to those on the ground or even accepting the problem exists. Because UC in its full form has only been rolled out in a few areas ,it means this situation has yet to become a public outcry.
Only once this happens can we expect DWP to take remedial action.
If the housing element is paid direct to landlords at least the tenant will retain the roof over their head. How can you find work if you are homeless?
Gt Yarmouth landlords were perfectly happy to take housing benefit tenants but not those on UC.
For those of you where this change has yet to arrive, I can only say watch this space. I have no good news for you unfortunately.

David Price

6:14 AM, 21st June 2017
About 2 years ago

I have two tenants (out of 80) who are on Universal Credit. Neither has paid anything since they were transferred from Housing Benefit. One has a nice new car and is threatening to take me to court for daring to ask for his rent. Both have been given section 8's but with the backlog in the local courts I do not expect possession before Christmas.

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