My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has just said, under the old housing benefit scheme the tenant had the choice of the payment going to him or directly to the landlord. The Minister said that, under the new scheme, the,
“position is for universal credit to be paid as a single monthly sum direct to the claimant; that is designed to mirror what would happen if the claimant was in full-time employment, when they would be responsible for managing their own funds and paying their own rent”.—[ Official Report , 21/12/15; col. 2438.]
In an ideal world that is an excellent idea, but in the real world it invariably does not happen. As a landlord, I can foresee that when the tenant receives the universal credit, the temptation will be to buy the weekly shopping, petrol, clothes and so on, and by the time the rent becomes due there will not be enough money left, so the spiral of debt takes hold. But the Government are adamant that paying universal credit only to the claimant not only will work but does work. Is this experiment working as the Government say it is?
According to a survey conducted by the Residential Landlords Association, it is not. It found that of those private sector landlords who had tenants on universal credit, some 63% had tenants in arrears on their rent—a point just made by the noble Baroness. Of that group of landlords, 85% had contacted the Department for Work and Pensions to have the housing element of the universal credit paid direct to them after eight weeks of arrears, as is their entitlement. More than 57% of that group said that it had taken the department more than five weeks to respond to the request, which means that the landlord is already more than three months out of pocket. I understand that the problem is even worse for social housing, with nearly 90% of tenants in arrears. It is heartening that the Minister said in Committee that,
“we are doing a lot of work now with social landlords to get the problem under control”.—[ Official Report , 21/12/15; col. 2437.]
At least my noble friend admits that there is a problem and that the new system is not working quite as planned. Much of this could have been avoided if the rent had been paid direct to the landlord.
In October 2012, a survey of more than 1,000 landlords carried out by the Residential Landlords Association and the Scottish Association of Landlords found that more than 91% of landlords were less likely to rent to tenants on benefits as a direct result of the decision not to allow payment of the benefits direct to the landlord. Not making the payment direct to the landlord is not helping the landlords and it is certainly not helping the tenants. All the evidence, backed by Shelter, Crisis and the Money Advice Trust, has been that paying it direct to the landlord was popular with tenants, as they were assured that their rent was covered before they decided how else to spend their money.
If the Government really want to make tenants,
“responsible for managing their own funds and paying their own rent”.—[ Official Report , 21/12/15; col. 2438.], what better way than the tenant asking for the rent to be paid direct to the landlord? To my mind, that is the height of responsibility for the tenant: to ensure that the roof over their heads is paid for before deciding how to spend any remaining money.