Iain Duncan Smith arrives in Downing Street to attend a weekly cabinet meeting on April 8, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

I fear that Universal Credit will leave tenants struggling

Our research demonstrates that people aren’t ready for such significant upheaval.

It is true, that if implemented successfully, Universal Credit will benefit many families, and here at the National Housing Federation we fully support the aims to simplify the benefit system and make work pay. But the risks of getting it wrong are huge.

Ultimately, there is a real possibility of homelessness but at best, families face financial hardship and debt. The knock-on effect of increased rent arrears is landlords experiencing a tighter squeeze on their resources, which in turn threatens their ability to build much needed new, affordable homes. 

We are worried that families already struggling to make ends meet could be put under further pressure when they move onto Universal Credit. Many households face a stark shift from budgeting their income over one or two weeks, to managing a monthly payment, made in arrears. According to our Ipsos MORI survey of working age social housing tenants affected by welfare reform, two-thirds of tenants aren’t confident they could make this transition, leaving them at risk of running out of money before the end of each month. 

The design of the new system assumes almost everyone will apply and make all changes online. Our evidence shows 40 per cent of affected tenants don’t have access to the internet and almost a third (30 per cent) say they would not be confident making a benefit application online.

On top of this, social tenants will lose the option of choosing to have their housing costs paid direct to their landlord, with many having to manage their rent payments for the first time. We welcome financial independence, but giving people responsibility is about giving them choices so they can decide for what works best for them. Why won’t government let tenants choose how to manage their finances when the overwhelming majority of tenants would prefer payments to be made to the landlord? A perfectly sensible choice, which gives peace of mind that their home is secure.

Our research demonstrates that people aren’t ready for such significant upheaval and many are likely to struggle during the transition to the new system. To combat this, there needs to be adequate provision and funding for support services to help people manage the change; people in need of support need to be identified early, before they hit crisis point; and effective safeguards, including an efficient switchback to payments to the landlord, are needed for when things go wrong. 

It is clear that a smooth transition to Universal Credit can’t be achieved without the help, engagement and expertise of housing associations. Our members, housing associations across England, are already doing all they can to support their residents through the changes – providing help to access employment and training, to develop online skills and budgeting support. But housing associations are hampered by not knowing when Universal Credit is going to affect them and their tenants – the lack of a clear timetable makes it impossible to plan for and deliver the support and resources that are going to be needed.

Apparently there could be as many as 7 million claimants moving to Universal Credit over the next few years. That is a huge undertaking. Every one of these claimants will depend on the transition being smooth and efficient. I can find no one who is fully confident that will be the case.  If we are to avoid soaring arrears, acute hardship and people being left without food then no corners can be cut. Getting this wrong is just not an option.

David Orr is chief executive of the National Housing Federation

David Orr is Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation.

Show Hide image

The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue