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

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For 19 minutes, I thought I had won the lottery

The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

Nineteen minutes ago, I was a millionaire. In my head, I’d bought a house and grillz that say “I’m fine now thanks”, in diamonds. I’d had my wisdom tooth (which I’ve been waiting months for the NHS to pull the hell out of my skull) removed privately. Drunk on sudden wealth, I’d considered emailing everyone who’s ever wronged me a picture of my arse. There I was, a rich woman wondering how to take a butt selfie. Life was magnificent.

Now I’m lying face-down on my bed. I’m wearing a grease-stained t-shirt and my room smells of cheese. I hear a “grrrrk” as my cat jumps onto the bed. He walks around on my back for a bit, then settles down, reinstating my place in the food chain: sub-cat. My phone rings. I fumble around for it with all the zeal of a slug with ME. Limply, I hold it to my ear.

“Hi,” I say.

“You haven’t won anything, have you” says my dad. It isn’t a question.

“I have not.”

“Ah. Never mind then eh?”

I make a sound that’s just pained vowels. It isn’t a groan. A groan is too human. This is pure animal.

“What? Stop mumbling, I can’t hear you.”

“I’m lying on my face,” I mumble.

“Well sit up then.”

“Can’t. The cat’s on my back.”

In my defence, the National Lottery website is confusing. Plus, I play the lottery once a year max. The chain of events which led me to believe, for nineteen otherworldly minutes, that I’d won £1 million in the EuroMillions can only be described as a Kafkaesque loop of ineptitude. It is both difficult and boring to explain. I bought a EuroMillions ticket, online, on a whim. Yeah, I suffer from whims. While checking the results, I took a couple of wrong turns that led me to a page that said, “you have winning matches in one draw”. Apparently something called a “millionaire maker code” had just won me a million quid.

A

Million

Quid.

I stared at the words and numbers for a solid minute. The lingering odour of the cheese omelette I’d just eaten was, all of a sudden, so much less tragic. I once slammed a finger in a door, and the pain was so intense that I nearly passed out. This, right now, was a fun version of that finger-in-door light-headedness. It was like being punched by good. Sure, there was a level on which I knew I’d made a mistake; that this could not be. People don’t just win £1 million. Well they do, but I don’t. It’s the sort of thing that happens to people called Pauline, from Wrexham. I am not Pauline from Wrexham. God I wish I was Pauline from Wrexham.

Even so, I started spending money in my head. Suddenly, London property was affordable. It’s incredible how quickly you can shrug off everyone else’s housing crisis woe, when you think you have £1m. No wonder rich people vote Conservative. I was imaginary rich for nineteen minutes (I know it was nineteen minutes because the National Lottery website kindly times how much of your life you’ve wasted on it) and turned at least 40 per cent evil.

But, in need of a second opinion on whether or not I was – evil or not - rich, I phoned my dad.

“This is going to sound weird,” I said, “but I think I’ve won £1 million.”

“You haven’t won £1 million,” he said. There was a decided lack of anything resembling excitement in his voice. It was like speaking to an accountant tired of explaining pyramid schemes to financial Don Quixotes.

“No!” I said, “I entered the EuroMillions and I checked my results and this thing has come up saying I’ve won something but it’s really confusing and…”

Saying it out loud (and my how articulately) clinched it: my enemies were not going to be looking at butt selfies any time soon. The agonising minutes spent figuring out my mistake paired beautifully with hard, low wisdom tooth throbs.

“Call me back in a few minutes,” I told my dad, halfway though the world’s saddest equation.

Now here I am, below a cat, trying to explain my stupidity and failing, due to stupidity.  

 

“If it’s any consolation,” my dad says, “I thought about it, and I’m pretty sure winning the lottery would’ve ruined your life.”

“No,” I say, cheese omelette-scented breath warming my face, “it would’ve made my life insanely good.”

I feel the cat purr. I can relate. For nineteen minutes, I was happy too. 

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.