Universal credit – stand by for the next rollout delay

Today I’ve written for the think-tank Progress on the next Universal Credit roll-out delay. I’ve reproduced my piece in full below.

There is a bit of a theme when the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith and his minister David Freud appear before the Department for Work and Pensions select committee to talk about universal credit. They admit there have been ‘problems’, announce that the ‘rollout’ is slowing down, but claim that all is now under control. Next time around it turns out that despite these reassurances, all has not gone as expected.

In early 2013 DWP was still stating that universal credit – which combines jobseeker’s allowance, income support, employment and support allowance, housing benefit and tax credits into one monthly payment – would launch for all new claimants in October of last year.

Major changes to the implementation programme were announced in July and again in December, so that by the end of last year there were only 3,780 people on the new benefit. And these were limited to the ‘easiest’ to handle – those who would otherwise have been on JSA, under 25, and without partners, children or homes to pay for.

In April 2014 it was announced that from June there would be a further rollout starting in jobcentres in the north-west, and from ‘summer’ claims from couples would be started (but still only those who would previously have been on JSA). In the select committee’s April report, we concluded ‘due to the very slow pace of the rollout to date, it is difficult to envisage how the volumes required to meet the most recent timetable are to be achieved’.

The information technology processes for universal credit remain shrouded in mist. At the outset, ministers claimed they had a process that would deliver in a way that no previous government IT projects had, but clearly they did not. Now the promise is of an ‘open source web based end state digital solution’. It is one of those sentences where you know the meaning of the individual words but as a whole. This is to be ready to test on 100 – yes one hundred – claimants by November 2014.

The select committee has asked that future reports and updates use clear, plain English explanations of the plans and outcomes, so that we can judge whether they are working. We need to know how much this new ‘solution’ is going to cost, and when we will know whether it will work for the large and varied number of claimants universal credit is meant to cover.

The previous mantra of ‘digital by default’ has been dropped. Freud said that they had decided that this approach was not sufficiently secure where large sums of money were being paid out. It seems that little thought was given at the outset to issues of verifying identity, and early concerns of commentators were initially brushed aside.

While the move away from digital by default is not altogether a bad thing, as many people were concerned at how this would work for those who do not have easy access to the internet, some of the administrative savings were to come from the fact that so much was to be done online; this must be having some impact on overall costs.

There is also a worrying vagueness about what it really means to be ‘on universal credit’ if your circumstances change. We asked what is happening when the ‘simple’ cases become complex – for example when someone falls sick or acquires a partner with a child. We did not get a clear answer and were left with the impression that all such changes were being done manually. In that case how does it differ from what happens at present?

Bringing benefits together into a ‘single system’ is not a new idea but the incoming coalition might well have asked itself why such a seemingly sensible idea of simplifying and streamlining benefits had not been introduced before. In reality it is a hugely complex undertaking but there is still little sign that ministers realise this, and even less that they are willing to be open about the problems. Stand by for the next rollout delay?

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Press release: job figures show Tories and SNP letting down Edinburgh

Sheila Gilmore said:

Here in Edinburgh 2270 people have been unemployed for a year or more, with 240 of these being aged under 25. Both the Conservative and SNP Governments are still letting down our city.

We urgently need action to get local people into work. This is why Labour is calling for a compulsory jobs guarantee, which will get any adult out of work for more than two years, or young person out of work for a year, into a job – one they would be required to take.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Here are the unemployment figures by constituency:
Constituency Long-term unemployment Long-term youth unemployment
Edinburgh East 575 55
Edinburgh North and Leith 620 65
Edinburgh South 280 25
Edinburgh South West 460 50
Edinburgh West 335 45
Total 2,270 240

 

  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Press release: Rent rise vote shows SNP put independence ahead of Scottish families

Commenting on the SNP’s decision to vote against Scottish Labour’s proposals to reform the private rented sector to protect tenants across Scotland, Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore said:

The SNP are afraid to admit that the Scottish Parliament already has the power to change Scotland for the better. This is why they voted against Scottish Labour’s plans to limit increases in rent today. By doing so they have put their obsession with independence ahead of the interests of thousands of Scottish families.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities Strategy, James Kelly MSP, lodged amendments to the Housing (Scotland) Bill to end unfair rises in rent and offer greater security to tenants.
  • Under Scottish Labour plans, Ministers would have had until 1 January 2015 to bring forward regulations to limit rent reviews to once a year and to cap rent increases.
  • SNP members voted against Labour proposals at the Stage 2 Committee debate earlier today.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Evening News article: Age brings wisdom

Today I’ve written in the Evening News about the benefits of councils and housing associations being able to let certain properties to specific age groups. You can read my piece here, but I’ve also reproduced it in full below.

FOR years many of Edinburgh’s high-rise blocks were plagued by a vicious cycle of antisocial behaviour, residents leaving, more unstable communities, and yet more antisocial behaviour. Vulnerable residents, who are often the least able to move, would suffer most.

However, of late, a number of blocks, including Citadel and Persevere Court in Leith and the three blocks at Hailesland Park, have been transformed into sought-after places to live.

598tenementsThis has in part been down to the council’s policy of only letting properties to people who are over 35 and don’t have any children, which has produced more stable communities. In turn, these have helped sustain the extensive and expensive refurbishment work that has gone on in these properties.

Unfortunately, the Scottish Housing Regulator told the council that this policy was illegal in 2010. This meant the policy couldn’t be extended to other types of housing where it could have been of use. For example “pensioner housing” – rows or small groups of cottages for example – are a good option for tenants wanting to downsize from family homes they are now finding hard to manage. However, unless these properties are sufficiently adapted to be classified as sheltered housing, the existing law means that they cannot be allocated only to older applicants.

In response, the Scottish Government announced that its Housing Bill would enable councils and housing associations to allocate certain types of properties to specific age groups. But on Monday housing minister Margaret Burgess announced that she would seek to remove this clause following a campaign by Shelter claiming that this would disadvantage young applicants and those who are homeless.

While I’ve been a strong supporter of Shelter’s work for many years, I’m afraid their claims aren’t backed up by the facts.

An analysis concluded that homeless applicants did not lose out while the council’s age-restricted lettings policy was in place. In addition, safeguards could be built into the legislation, such as requiring councils that use this flexibility to demonstrate that younger or homeless applicants don’t lose out overall.

It has also been suggested that demand for affordable homes isn’t particularly high amongst older people, but in Edinburgh 41 per cent of applicants for social housing are aged 35 to 60, and they were 37 per cent of new tenants in 2011-12.

The Scottish Government talks a lot about the need for tenant consultation and participation. Age-restricted lettings policies were popular with tenants and applicants alike, so why are their views now being ignored?

There is a sound argument for allowing for age-restricted lettings policies on the basis of housing management and sustainability. In addition, there is a need to be fulfilled, and such policies have the support of tenants. I hope all MSPs of all parties vote to retain provision for flexible allocations of this type.

• Sheila Gilmore is the Labour MP for Edinburgh East

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Press Release: Housing plans show we can change Scotland for better as part of UK

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore today welcomed Scottish Labour’s plans to reform the private rented sector to protect tenants across Scotland.

Sheila Gilmore said:

I welcome Scottish Labour’s plans to limit increases in rent and encourage longer tenancies – changes that can be made using powers the Scottish Parliament already has.

This demonstrates that we can change Scotland for the better while retaining all the benefits of the United Kingdom, and without the need for independence.

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

  • Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities Strategy, James Kelly MSP, will lodge amendments to the Housing (Scotland) Bill to end unfair rises in rent and offer greater security to tenants.
  • Under Scottish Labour plans, Ministers will have until 1 January 2015 to bring forward regulations to limit rent reviews to once a year and to cap rent increases. The party is also demanding that 3 year tenancies become the market standard in Scotland.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan, Parliamentary Assistant to Sheila Gilmore MP, on 020 7219 7062, 07742 986 513 or matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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