My Lords, we strongly support the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher. Indeed, it replicates part of an amendment moved in Committee by the noble Earl, Lord Cathcart. We know from the Government’s point of view that there is an article of faith here. Their starting point is that they overwhelmingly want and expect universal credit to be paid as a single monthly payment in arrears to the claimant. We know that there are opportunities for alternative payment arrangements and my noble friend Lady Sherlock set down our understanding in responding to the amendment in Committee.
The issue of eight weeks has been raised, but it is not eight weeks before you get to a solution. As I understand it, the guidance states that, when arrears reach one month’s rent, the DWP will review the situation—I am not sure how long it takes it to do that—following notification by the claimant or landlord. When they hit two months or eight weeks, either the landlord or the claimant can request an APA. Again, I think the point was raised about how long it takes the DWP to respond to those questions. Even then, there is no automatic right to one because the Government are still clinging to the concept that managing benefits should mirror choices in managing money which they say that those in work have to make.
The issue is one not only of having a nominal system in place under which alternative payments can be made, but of how those are put into practice and what realistic timescales are involved. Even if it were on the dot of eight weeks, that is a time for a landlord to wait. Some landlords might be left in a marginal economic situation.
A question was posed about what information we have about claimants of universal credit and other benefits being effectively denied access to properties available for rent. It might be quite hard to get hard statistics on that, but it would be interesting to know what the department has. The landlords fear, even if they may ultimately get paid, that they will have to wait eight weeks or even longer before they get their money.
My noble friend asked about what is happening with universal credit and how many people are in the system at the moment. At December 2015, there were 287,000 universal credit claims—I think that this is internal management information and therefore not fully verified—and some 37% of those payments included a housing element. Again only preliminary analysis showed that 19% of those had a managed payment to the landlord. I suppose that that gives a glimpse of something that is working to an extent, but clearly is not working in a sufficiently robust way to address the very real concerns that have been raised.
We debated this endlessly during the passage of the Welfare Reform Bill. My noble friend will remember it, and jam-jar accounts have featured already this evening. The arguments were strongly made against not only monthly payments but the opportunity for direct payments, particularly in relation to housing. My noble friend Lady Hollis made an extremely important point that the fundamental is a roof over your head—pretty much everything else flows from that. How can you get a job if you do not have secure accommodation? How do the kids get to school if you do not have secure accommodation? It is a fundamental issue. Just a relatively small change to the system, giving people the choice of having direct payments, means the prospect of removing what is clearly a growing problem, as explained, and fixing it in an effective way, so we support the amendment.