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After five long years a guide has finally been issued by the government for those seeking to claim Universal credit for their housing and living expenses.
Universal Credit was first introduced in 2013; it sought to help the benefit dependent by putting them on a more equal footing with those who work, by paying 6 of the major benefits in one lump sum, including what used to be paid by housing benefit, now to be known as the housing element.
Many people were concerned at how a benefit recipient, used to receiving benefit every fortnight, with other benefits payable on different days through the month, would manage to cope with receiving one large sum into their bank accounts once a month, rather than smaller sums on staggered days.
Both public and private sector landlords made representations about this; many public-sector landlords found their rent arrears rising to previously unknown levels. Private-sector tenants, who had previously applied for benefits using forms and hand-writing, now found that they were expected to apply on-line and with very few staff available to assist them. Universal Credit has been held responsible for hundreds of tenants being made homeless, evicted because they were unable to adapt to the new system.
I make the point because, 5 years after its’ cautious but steady implementation, the Department of Work and Pensions have issued a guide to assist claimants. Why it should take until March 2018 to provide a guide is anyone’s guess; it should have been earlier but at least they have it now.
The guide can be found on the Government’s website, under the title ‘Universal Credit Consent and Disclosure of Information’. It is very clearly written (though some degree of computer literacy is obviously required if a tenant is to refer to it), so perhaps it is good news for tenants that are able to access it.
There is also good news for the private sector landlord, however. Ludicrous as it seems, when a tenant had fallen into rent arrears, although there was protection written into the legislation for an Alternative Payment Arrangement (APA) made, the tenants’ permission had to be given! Even those tenants, who were happy for an APA to be applied, could delay giving permission and perhaps be able to receive another months’ housing element – it is unlikely to make much difference to the tenant whether he owes 2, 3 or more months rent.
The guidance makes it clear that the tenant can ask a representative to act for them, if they have difficulties with the claim themselves. The tenant must give explicit consent that they are allowing a representative to work for them; this can be in writing, but surprisingly, can be given on the telephone.
Whilst this consent will allow some information to be disclosed, for example the date the claim was opened, it does not allow for full discussion of a tenant’s personal circumstances. It is probable that the information they are not allowed to disclose will, in some cases, be already known to the representative, but if not in possession of full details of the person being represented, the DWP will never disclose:
- The tenants’ address;
- Date of birth;
- National insurance no.;
- Bank details;
- Telephone no.;
- Household members;
- Employers or Former Employers.
This would ensure that data protection is not breached.
I hope the guide proves helpful to tenants and that the removal of the need for tenant permission means landlords who apply for an APA get it without hindrance. But the question must be posed – how many tenants would have been spared eviction and homelessness if this had been the de-fault position; how many landlords would have more confidence in letting to the vulnerable and been spared the stress had that been the case earlier?
‘Better late than never’ will seem very hollow where a landlord has found his financial position threatened because of an awkward and obdurate tenant.
For advice on buy to let issues – Ask Sharon