Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Government promises to improve communications with benefit claimants facing sanctions

The government has accepted the recommendations of an independent review of benefit sanctions for claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance who have been sanctioned after being referred to a mandatory back to work scheme.

Which? economist and former head of economics and social policy at influential centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, Matthew Oakley, concluded that the system is not fundamentally broken, but identified a number of areas where improvements need to be made, particularly for more vulnerable individuals.

Oakley reported that one area of concern that came up repeatedly through the review was the impact that adverse sanction decisions had on the receipt of housing benefit. Sanctions considered under the remit of the review should not impact on housing benefit, but the review team heard of instances where local authorities ended a claim for housing benefit after a sanction had been applied.

He recommended that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should work with local authorities to improve the coordination of their approach to delivering housing benefit for claimants who have been sanctioned. In the short-term, all letters and communications informing claimants of the application of a sanction should advise claimants already in receipt of housing benefit to contact their local authority about their claim.

Actions the government has agreed to implement include:

  • setting up a specialist team to audit all communications including claimant letters, texts and emails and transform how claimants on all benefits are provided with information about their responsibilities and the support on offer – this team will take on board the latest academic research and innovations in private sector communications
  • streamlining the checks and balances that are in place that give claimants the opportunity to provide evidence of why they haven’t complied with the rules
  • clarifying guidance and updating the process in which claimants can access hardship payments once they have been sanctioned
  • working more closely with local authorities to coordinate their approach to deliver housing benefit for claimants who have been sanctioned for not doing the right thing
  • ensuring the contract that claimants sign up to in exchange for their benefits – the Claimant Commitment – in which they agree what they will do to get a job, can be shared with their provider throughout their time on a back to work scheme
  • working with providers, stakeholders and advocates for groups to continuously explore alternative formats for all types of communications with claimants.

The government says it will take the recommendations from the Oakley review even further and roll out changes to other types of benefits where practicable.

Two thirds of 'troubled families' living in social housing

Early family monitoring data from of the government's flagship Troubled Families programme shows that 70 per cent of families who entered the Troubled Families Programme up to December 2013 are living in social housing compared to 17 per cent of the population nationally.

Over a quarter (27 per cent) are in rent arrears and one in five families (21 per cent) were at risk of eviction.

To qualify for help under the Troubled Families Programme, families need to have at least three problems related to children not being in school, youth crime or anti-social behaviour, worklessness, or being high cost to public services locally. However, an independently compiled report from Ecorys hows that families have many more problems than this, with an average (median) of nine different problems within each family.

The Department for Communities and Local Government has published its own report on the analysis “Understanding Troubled Families” which notes that, in addition to the problems that qualify families for the programme:

  • 71% also have a health problem
  • 46% have a mental health concern
  • 29% are experiencing domestic violence or abuse
  • 22% have been at risk of eviction in the previous 6 months
  • 35% had a child of concern to social services or who has been taken into care
  • 40% have 3 or more children, compared to 16% nationally

Furthermore, almost half of families had at least one police callout to the home in the last six months, with an average of five callouts per family. One family had 90 police call outs in six months, and 21 families had more than 30 callouts in six months – more than once a week.
Head of the government’s Troubled Families programme Louise Casey CB said the findings showed the need for a new approach from services to helping the most troubled families turn their lives around that “gets in through the front door and really understands what’s going on across the whole family”.

She said: 
“This report paints a picture of families sinking under the weight of multiple problems and is an illustration of why we can’t treat the individual problems of individual members of a complex family in isolation.

“It shows that these problems are interlinked and that they spiral out of control unless we do something about it.

“The best services understand that and provide practical solutions as well as challenge and support. However this data also shows how big the challenge is and why we need to take this approach to a wider group of families with a wider set of problems as soon as we can.”
The Ecorys report warns that the data collection is in its very early stages, of varying quality and, at this stage, the researchers and the DCLG are unsure whether the data submitted is representative of all troubled families going through the programme. 

A new fuel poverty framework

In a package of announcements made yesterday, the government set out how it intends to overhaul the framework to tackle fuel poverty in England.

The government laid its draft Fuel Poverty (England) Regulations 2014 before Parliament to put in place a new long term fuel poverty target of ensuring that as many fuel poor homes as is reasonably practicable achieve a minimum energy efficiency standard of Band C by 2030.

To support the Regulations the government published a consultation document on its new fuel poverty strategy for England. The consultation document's emphasis is on helping low-income households who are not connected to the gas grid and those whose health can suffer from living in the cold.

Separate proposals for energy efficiency standards in the private rented sector in England and Wales will empower private domestic tenants to request consent for energy efficiency measures that may not unreasonably be refused by their landlord.

The government has also published its Fuel Poverty Energy Efficiency Rating Methodology, setting out in detail how to measure energy efficiency standards of fuel poor households in relation to the new fuel poverty target.

Unveiling the new proposals, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey said:
"These proposals mark a radical shift away from old policies of tinkering at the edges without tackling the root causes of fuel poverty – homes that need too much energy and leak too much heat to be able to keep warm."

"We'll target the worst properties first, where people in the most extreme cases face paying over £1,500 more than they need to. We'll work with partners - including GPs and others working in healthcare – to make sure the right help gets to those who need it the most."

"And today I'm reaffirming our commitment to the most vulnerable households by confirming that the current levels of help they are getting through the Energy Company Obligation will be maintained, and will continue for an extra two years – helping over half a million more low income households."
Fuel poverty in England is now measured using the Low Income High Costs approach which is explained in section two of the Fuel Poverty: a framework for future action, published last year.

Inside Housing reports that the government has been slammed by campaigners over its plans to target fuel poverty.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

New housing and planning minister

Brandon Lewis, Conservative MP for Great Yarmouth has been appointed Housing and Planning Minister following the Government's ministerial reshuffle.

Lewis has been promoted from the role of Under Secretary of State in DCLG, in which he had responsibility for local government.

Before joining the Government, Lewis was an active member of a number of All Party Parliamentary Groups, including those for enterprise zones and local growth as well as local government. He was co-chair of a group on coastal erosion and continues to work with colleagues who represent other coastal towns to highlight common issues in their constituencies.

In replacing former Planning Minister Nick Boles and former Housing Minister Kris Hopkins, Prime Minister David Cameron has restored the housing and planning briefs to full minister of state level. The last holder of both portfolios was Labour MP Margaret Beckett in 2009.

Nick Boles has been promoted to Minister of State jointly for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Education

According to Inside Housing, former housing minister Kris Hopkins will now cover local government at DCLG.

Report reveals impact of the 'bedroom tax' on social tenants

An interim report published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) looks at the impact of the 'bedroom tax' on tenants.

Titled, 'Evaluation of Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy: Interim report', the report is informed by a survey of 750 social landlords across Britain. Looking at arrears it says:

'Total arrears (for all reasons) held by social landlords increased by 16 per cent between April and October, although it must be emphasised that the cause of this is uncertain and we cannot directly attribute this increase to the Removal of the Spare Room Subsidy (RSRS)'. It goes on to say:

'Landlords state that they will eventually evict RSRS-affected non-payers, though at the time of the research most were currently only in the early stages of this process. Many landlords expressed concern that collecting rent from people who can’t afford to pay whilst in their current circumstances is damaging relations between landlords and tenants.'

DWP makes the point that, 'The overall size of the social housing sector in Britain is around 4.71 million homes. This means that 11.6 per cent of all tenancies were affected by the RSRS in May 2013, falling to 11.1 per cent by August 2013.'

One of the report's objectives was to monitor 'the extent of increased mobility within the social housing sector'. It finds that:
'If downsizing in response to the RSRS continues at the current rate for the next two years, over 20 per cent of affected households would have downsized within social housing.'
Responding to the report, David Orr, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said:
"Time and time again it has been shown that the bedroom tax is pushing people into rent arrears and people have been unable to downsize because of a lack of smaller properties.
"Now the figures from the DWP prove it is not working, surely now it is time for the government to admit they got it wrong and repeal this ill-thought policy."
However, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith disagrees with this analysis. He said:
"The scaremongering by those opposed to our welfare reforms - in particular our housing benefit reforms - has been proven to be without substance, and we are already seeing the effects of people moving into work."
The final report will be published in 2015, but there is a great deal in here of interest to social landlords, and perhaps our sector will be relieved to learn that so far, 'there [have] been very few evictions solely due to the RSRS.'

The BBC has written an article about the interim report, and you can find it here.