I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the effect of universal credit on the private rented sector.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It was good to obtain this debate, and I am delighted that a range of colleagues have come to speak on such an important issue.
This is indeed an important debate. We all know and read about the challenges with the lack of housing across the UK. Some 1.2 million to 1.3 million people on housing benefit or local housing allowance are in the private rented sector. Most of us will know from our constituency casework that many private sector landlords are reluctant to let to people on housing benefit. My supposition, which is clearly proved by the evidence, is that the universal credit roll-out, up until the recent changes in the Budget, would not acknowledge the issues and the challenges and frustrations for private sector landlords not wishing to rent to people on benefit and certainly not to those on universal credit, and that without a default payment direct from the Department for Work and Pensions to the landlord, even more people in the private sector will pull out of the whole area. That has proved to be the case.
How did we get to this situation? I remember that when I was last a Member of this place, I served on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and I repeated ad nauseam to the then Secretary of State, Mr Duncan Smith, that one fundamental flaw of universal credit was the insistence that the tenant should receive the full housing benefit and pay it on to the landlord. I understood the argument; I understood that that was about encouraging responsibility. My frustration—I argued this very assertively in numerous Select Committee sittings—was that the problem with ideologues is that they fit the facts to their ideology, rather than recognising that facts are facts. I was sure, from my own experience as an MP and from talking to colleagues, that sadly many tenants on universal credit would not pass the money over to their landlords, for one reason or another, and that that would make the private rented sector even more nervous about letting to people on housing benefit.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech on a very important issue, and I apologise because I will have to attend the Finance (No. 2) Bill Committee shortly. A landlord who came to my surgery had 20 tenants on universal credit, of whom 18 were in arrears and nine had to be evicted. That is at this very early stage of the roll-out, when full service has not yet come to my area. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those are the sort of facts that do not fit into the theory of universal credit?
I appreciate the intervention. It is good to see the hon. Lady here, and I entirely agree with her. She gives a strong example, which any Member of Parliament, from any party and anywhere in the country, who supports people on universal credit and works with people in the private rented sector will know to be true.
At that time, there was a coalition Government and a Conservative Secretary of State. People can check the record: I said again and again, “This is going to be a car crash,” but that was ignored. We move on to 2015—I am giving a bit of context. The Government carried on rolling out universal credit, and we had numerous examples, such as that which Ruth George has just given—others in the Chamber will have had experience of such things over the past two years—of the fact that without that default, fewer and fewer private landlords are letting to people on universal credit, and that those who are see tenants falling into arrears. Section 21 evictions are going through the roof. It is just utter madness. We now move to 2017.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on obtaining this timely debate. I am sure that he will agree that through a lack of social housing, more and more people are being forced into the private sector, but rents are going through the roof. I agree with him about private landlords. We have only to watch television documentaries on this issue to see what the situation is. We see two or three blocks of people being moved out because the private landlord can get more money as a result. It is also a public scandal that in London and other places, there will be four or five people sharing the same house because they cannot afford the rent singly. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that we should have stronger regulation in that respect.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the intervention. He raises an important point about the public sector, because housing associations and councils have also been badly affected. It is just that broadly speaking—again, everyone in this Chamber knows this, because we are experienced politicians—the public sector will be more patient and understanding as it waits for payments from universal credit. Usually, private landlords simply cannot wait, not because they are mean or what have you, but because their business model does not allow them not to be paid for month after month. As a result, there is a spike in section 21 evictions.
We now get to the Budget. Finally—although I would like to think that this was partly due to my lobbying I know that it will be thanks to many other people in this Chamber and outside—the Chancellor of the Exchequer took on board some of the fundamental criticisms that I have been making of universal credit, for years frankly, about default payments to landlords, and some changes were made. At last! It was five or six years since I had been arguing for that and advocating it, but better late than never. It will make a difference, and that I approve of. However, it is only the first part of the journey in relation to automatic default rental payments to landlords. It is the beginning, but it does not include people who are not already on automatic payments. As I understand it—the Minister may provide clarification—it also does not include all those people to whom universal credit has already been rolled out over the past few years. And it does not start until the spring. It is a step in the right direction and an acknowledgement from the Government that they made a mistake and they finally want to try to put it right, so I approve of it, but there is still much further to go.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that this is one of the fundamental flaws? Local authorities have decades of experience of dealing with housing benefit, both in the public sector and, more particularly, in the private sector. We have thrown all that expertise away, which is so counterproductive. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
I appreciate the intervention. Not only do I wholly agree, but the decisions are completely irrational. One thing that I am finding out from the Residential Landlords Association and others is that there is not adequate communication between the DWP, local authorities and landlords, so even though, in theory, it seems from the changes in the Budget that there is the beginning of an understanding from the Government that default payments will be necessary to prevent a complete car crash, there is still a long way to go towards understanding that they have made the system so complicated that things will still be very hard for residential landlords. What does that mean? It means that they will pull out in droves.
Currently, 1.2 million people are on housing benefit or LHA in the private rented sector. There is a housing crisis in this country. This is not the debate to discuss that, but we have a housing crisis; we all know that from our constituency surgeries. The Government could convert that 1.2 million to 2.4 million; it could double the number of tenants moving into the private rented sector, because the capacity is there. However, that will happen only if the Government make it easy—very straightforward—for private landlords to take on someone who is on universal credit and give them a roof over their head, and if there is that automatic default payment that is, as it says on the tin, automatic.
If I am a landlord and I take someone, or am willing to take someone, on universal credit, and give them a flat or a house, a roof over their head, the automatic situation—by mutual agreement with the tenant, I accept that that is important—would be for his or her payment on universal credit automatically to go straight into my account, the landlord’s. I was in business for years before I went into politics, and I can absolutely guarantee that despite the challenges with some tenants on universal credit, in the eyes of landlords, ultimately, a business is a business, and if a landlord is getting their payment directly into their business bank account every month—or every two weeks, as I would like, but that is another issue—then, as a business, they will look favourably on that particular group. That is something that I really urge the Minister to consider.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. On the issue of the automaticity, as he might term it, of the payments going to the landlord, does he agree that in parts of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland, where we have negotiated that, it has not led to an increase in rent arrears? There are other problems, but rent arrears are not a big one. We have also negotiated the twice-per-month payment, which helps both landlords and tenants to know that the rent is being paid and the tenant to know that he or she is not going into arrears.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention; I was going to come to that point in a moment, but I will come to it straightaway. In Northern Ireland—I think five or six years ago, way before we reached the crisis that we have had over the past couple of years—the politicians negotiated default direct payments to landlords. They also negotiated that the payment should be every two weeks. I am reliably informed by colleagues from Northern Ireland that at the time the DWP—again it was under the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, if my memory serves me—did not want to budge and insisted that that would collapse the entire thing. However, as Government Members have discovered, when my friends in the Democratic Unionist party dig their heels in, they dig their heels in. I pay tribute to them on this one, because the DUP, and I think the Social Democratic and Labour party as well, said, “No, we are not budging. It must be a default payment.” Do you know what? It was. It worked. It is the same computer system, folks. The previous Secretary of State—the one who has just gone—kept saying, “It is much more complicated, you can’t just change it.” Do they use a different computer in Northern Ireland? I do not think so, because as we all know, they are part of the United Kingdom.
The other thing that the Stormont Government negotiated was payments every two weeks. The percentage of rent arrears in Northern Ireland for people on universal credit is almost zero. In England, as we all know from our constituency surgeries, we have section 21s in the private sector going through the roof, or private landlords coming into our offices and saying, “That’s it, we are pulling out of universal credit. We’re not going to touch it.” Meanwhile the local authorities, housing associations and councils, which are under horrendous stresses and strains at the moment, are asking where all these additional people are going to go.
The hon. Gentleman is making a good speech with some considered suggestions for the Government. On the point he has just made, does he also agree that landlords who are fearful about delays in people accessing universal credit might actually have a wider problem with renting not just to people on benefits but to people on lower incomes who they fear might need to receive benefits in the future? That will not be very helpful when, in most constituencies, one in five houses is in the private rented sector.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention and welcome him back. I agree entirely, because universal credit is just one area. It is one side of the impact of what has been an ill-thought-through policy.
I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. Is it not important that the Government take away the freeze on the housing allowance cap, in order to make sure that housing benefit reflects market values, because otherwise the benefit does not keep up with the market value of the private sector?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that is something that needs to be considered, particularly as regards the further caps that have come in over the past couple of years. I think those are unsustainable.
Has the hon. Gentleman given any consideration to the issue of 18 to 21-year-olds who are on universal credit and have no recourse to any funding for the housing element? Very often they will be on a lower wage, as obviously the minimum wage for younger people is lower than that for people over 25. There are big issues for the sector and I think it will ultimately end in a rise in homelessness among that group. Does he agree?
I agree. As regards that particular age group—unless they have some sort of bank of mum and dad—in our surgeries we are already seeing that young people are tremendously adversely affected, both by the lack of housing benefit at that age, and, frankly, some of the issues around universal credit.
Another issue that has not been properly addressed, and I would welcome hearing about this from the Minister, is that there is a portal for public sector housing and councils and housing associations to access as regards people in their area, or their tenants, going on to universal credit, but there is not one for the private sector. I urge the Minister not to tell me that there is, if she has been told that by her civil servants, because I have been told by all the residential trade associations that there is not, or it is not working.
At the risk of misquoting Tony Blair, who kept saying, “Education, education, education,” I want to talk about evidence, evidence, evidence. All those years ago, when I and others first challenged the then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, in the Work and Pensions Committee, saying, “You must understand, if you retain the original plan, which is that all the money goes to the tenant and the tenant pays the landlord, it will be an absolute disaster,” I did not have evidence. I just had a hunch, based on years of experience dealing with thousands of people. I just knew that, as did many others. Where are we now? We are five or six years down the line, and I want to provide some evidence.
In the past 12 months, the RLA reports, one in three landlords has attempted to evict a tenant; 60% were due to rent arrears, and the majority of those were on universal credit. This not only means unnecessary suffering for tens of thousands of housing benefit recipients, but poses a threat to the future of benefits claimants ever succeeding to rent in the private sector, because once a tenant has a bad record, it is extremely difficult to unwind.
Secondly, a recent study carried out by the RLA shows that almost 87% of landlords would not be willing to let their properties to claimants of universal credit, while 38% have already experienced universal credit tenants going into arrears. Where are we going with this madness? I remind everyone of the percentage of rent arrears among those on universal credit in Northern Ireland. A recent study commissioned by Crisis—a homelessness charity—and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that 90% of local authorities were concerned that universal credit would increase homelessness, which it has, because of section 21s. The list of evidence goes on and on.
The RLA has found that 73%—Minister, these are the facts, the stats and the evidence—of its thousands of members,
“lack confidence in renting to tenants on the Credit due to uncertainty that they will be able to recover rent arrears.”
Another major landlords’ trade association, the National Landlords Association, found that only one in five of its members would let their properties to tenants on universal credit. I have already talked about Crisis. The trade association for letting agencies, the Association of Residential Letting Agents, which many hon. Members deal with, found that
The list goes on and on, so it is time to fix it.
This is what I propose to the Government. I am delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer listened to me, the MP for Eastbourne, and made those amends in the Budget. I suspect that a few others probably had a little more influence than me; but, heck, like all politicians, I have been banging on about it for years so I will take the credit. So there have been some adjustments, but where do we go next? I ask the Minister to report back to the new Secretary of State, with whom I worked in coalition and who I congratulate on her position, and persuade her to go to the Chancellor and do what it takes to make defaults to landlords, by mutual tenant-landlord agreement, automatic; and to go over to Northern Ireland, see their minority Government colleagues in the DUP, find out exactly what their computer programme does that allows colleagues in Northern Ireland to do automatic default payments, follow their two-week advice—I would do the same on that—and implement it across the country.
I believe that what would happen is that the housing stock capacity in the private sector would go up exponentially—even potentially double—because of what I mentioned earlier. Despite the challenges with tenants sometimes being on benefit, the prejudices that landlords sometimes have against them are often founded on the reality that landlords do not feel secure that they will receive the money. I am absolutely certain that if landlords know that they will get a default payment, over a couple of years there will be a substantial increase in the amount of private rented stock available to people on universal credit, and that could make a significant difference in reducing homelessness.
There is an opportunity for the Government. Despite the ideological and fundamental errors that underpin some elements of universal credit, finally, after years and years of banging on the door, they are beginning to change. Thank heaven! Now that door is open, the Minister and her Government have an opportunity to be game changers and to convert universal credit into what I believe it always should have been: a decent benefit. One of the key things they need to do is around the default payment, which I have debated this morning. Along with that—this is my other favourite—I would go to the current Secretary of the State at the DWP and ask her to have a word with the previous MP for her constituency, the former Chancellor George Osborne, and ask for the £3 billion back. He took that out after 2015, when the Liberals were defenestrated at the election; he slashed £3 billion a year out of universal credit, which was supposed to be about the work allowance.
If we get that money back and properly convert what should be a default payment to landlords, we can produce what universal credit should have been, and was originally designed to be: a progressive, positive benefit that gives people transformative opportunities. After five years of it being a complete car crash in so many ways, I believe that the Government finally understand that. I urge the Government to make my day and, possibly, that of the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, and to make automatic payments as a default to landlords. I ask that they to do it instantly, they do it in both the private and public sectors and they do it now.
The full roll-out of universal credit in Lowestoft in my constituency commenced in May 2016. Significant problems were encountered from the outset, although from early 2017 the Department for Work and Pensions has worked more closely with local organisations to address them. The situation has improved and the proposals announced in the November Budget are very welcome. One area in which work is still required is the co-ordination of universal credit with housing in both the social and the private rented sectors. Good housing is a vital pre-requisite if universal credit is to be a success, and it is important that the role of private providers is properly recognised.
The main problem that was encountered was that the delays in the paying of universal credit led to rent arrears building up. This triggered a downward spiral of events, with landlords often serving eviction notices, albeit reluctantly, leading to an increase in homelessness, added pressure on local authorities and housing associations to house those who had been evicted and subsequently a reduction in housing as private landlords decided not to let to universal credit claimants.
On that point, I had one couple who received no benefits for six months and were very nearly evicted. At the end of it all they were told that they would receive only four weeks’ backdated payment, and it was only when we intervened in the case that we managed to get the full amount back to them. This absolutely has to be looked into.
In October, the housing association Shoreline in my constituency had 182 residents who were already on universal credit, and 80% of them were in rent arrears. Such examples create a stigma against people who are on universal credit, because of those issues. Fundamentally, we have to iron out some of those problems to prevent people from getting into arrears and to give private landlords confidence that those people will not be defaulters or bad debtors when paying their rent.
Yes. It is quite clear that private sector landlords’ confidence in the system has been very severely dented. I sense, from my own perspective, that the situation has improved, but I acknowledge that there is still a great more work to be done. Local letting agents advise me that the majority of their landlord clients are still reluctant to let to universal credit claimants. It is also necessary to bear in mind that many landlords own only one or two properties and the rents that they receive are a very important part of their annual income.
The Eastern Landlords Association, which has 1,400 members, highlights the lack of a level playing field, with council and housing association landlords able to secure direct payments after eight weeks’ arrears, while private landlords need specific tenants’ approval to do so. This is still proving a disincentive to private landlords to let to universal credit claimants; as we have seen, many of them have lost confidence in the system. It highlights the need for better communication with the DWP and describes the system of claiming alternative payment arrangements online as “hit and miss”. It advises that while some claims do get processed, in its experience at least 50% do not get looked at.
The roll-out of universal credit is a mammoth task. There is a lot of heavy lifting to be done, which the DWP cannot do on its own. There is a need for a partnership approach, which should involve private landlords as well as councils, the 1ocal voluntary sector, such as citizens advice bureaux, and housing associations. To give credit to the DWP, under the guidance of my hon. Friend Damian Hinds—perhaps I should say my right hon. Friend; I wish him all the best in his new role—it has begun to adopt such an approach in recent months, and I anticipate that the Minister will continue in the same way. It is important that full consideration is given to the Residential Landlords Association’s recommendations and to the innovative proposals from Crisis to adapt the Newcastle trailblazer for reducing homelessness to ensure that those in receipt of universal credit do not fall in to rent arrears.
In Lowestoft, three suggestions have been made. First, in each DWP office, the Government should have a landlord liaison officer for landlords to contact to discuss issues with their tenants’ housing claims, when the landlord has applied for an alternative payment arrangement. Secondly, housing moneys should not be released to a tenant when they are being sanctioned, as they often choose to use the money to support the sanction shortfall. In effect, that means the landlord is penalised. Finally, when a sanction does happen, the housing money should automatically be paid through an alternative payment arrangement to the landlord.
A lot of people wish to speak in this debate, so I will conclude by saying that if universal credit is to be a success and to do what it says on the tin, it is important that the DWP listens to the proposals that I have outlined, as colleagues will too, so that we fully regain the confidence of private landlords, because they have a very important role to play.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank Stephen Lloyd for securing this important debate.
As a young child, my father was out of work for quite a long period and we could not pay the mortgage. My mum handed the house keys in to the building society and for several hours we were physically homeless until the council found us a flat. That experience has stayed with me all my life. I will always be grateful to the council for saving us, because being homeless is not about being physically on the street. It is about people not having a permanent roof over their head, and that is something that all children should be entitled to.
Although the Labour party supports the idea of universal credit, sadly—as we have seen in our constituencies—the Government’s wilful determination to roll it out, glitches and all, means that some of the most vulnerable people living in the private rental sector are at risk of building up rent arrears to such a point that they are evicted and made homeless. That is something that, in particular, no child should have to experience.
Northern Ireland has been mentioned. When we were negotiating with the Government, we were concerned about people living with mental illness, people living with disabilities and single parents. That was a major issue in helping us to come to the conclusion and agreement we have in Northern Ireland.
I totally support what the hon. Gentleman says: this is about not just families, but people with extra needs. Single parents in particular are most vulnerable to bullying landlords.
Gingerbread states that two thirds of single parents rent privately, and from my casework, I know that that group of people and the children that they support is particularly hard hit.
Gingerbread is a fantastic charity. In my constituency, a young woman came to me who was being bullied by her landlord in all sorts of ways because of her inability to pay her rent. Single women living with children are incredibly vulnerable to that.
The ending of an assured shorthold tenancy agreement with a private landlord is now the primary reason for families presenting themselves as homeless to the local authority. The pressures on local authority housing could not be more severe. In Kirklees, for example, there currently 9,700 applications for only 171 properties. It is a priority for all of us to support the private rental sector as universal credit is rolled out, if we want to lessen the burden on local councils. But this problem will not go away any time soon. The number of working households claiming housing benefit in the private sector has more than doubled since 2009, whereas the wages of some of the lowest paid in our society have stagnated. DWP figures confirm that only 7% of private renters are actually unemployed and seeking work. Sadly, although the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the private rental sector has grown by a third over the past 12 months, the number of those being evicted has also grown, with 7,200 more private tenants losing their homes in 2015 than in 2003.
My hon. Friend’s point is incredibly important. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has been working with the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, and they showed that in 2015, 80% of private sector evictions were no fault evictions. That resulted in individuals going to local authorities, but perhaps being considered as people who had made themselves intentionally homeless. Does she agree that that creates a huge difficulty in the system?
The idea of people making themselves intentionally homeless is a huge problem for a number of my constituents. It affects their credit rating and rolls on into the rest of their lives in a really unacceptable manner.
The greatest concern for landlords is the move away from direct payments. Many worry that tenants will not have the capability to budget effectively and will end up spending the housing element of universal credit on other essentials. In the debate last year on UC, the Government argued that delaying payment for rent was the same as those in work being paid at the end of the month, so the delay was a good lesson in budgeting and responsibility. Well, maybe for middle-class families with savings or relatives with cash to see them through a tricky financial patch, but when—as the English housing survey discovered—66% of private renters have no savings, the ability to budget is not so straightforward.
After the Budget, the Residential Landlords Association did a snap survey, which found that 36% of landlords would have more confidence in letting to tenants on universal credit. Sadly, 64% said they would not. I suppose their caution is not surprising, given that the RLA reported a high rise in rent arrears where universal credit has been introduced. The National Landlords Association chair agreed, saying that they expected to see
“a steady decline in landlords being willing to rent to benefit claimants in the next 18 months to two years.”
Only 18% to 20% of private landlords accept tenants who pay their rent with local housing allowance. That is down from 46% in 2010-11. Why? Because universal credit encourages tenants to fall into arrears, and 38% of landlords have seen tenants in receipt of UC entering rent arrears. In Kirklees Council—my constituency council—437 claimants are on universal credit, with further roll-outs scheduled for later in the year. Some 82% of those are in arrears, to the tune of seven weeks rent on average, whereas before going onto UC, the figure was 5.1 weeks in arrears.
Landlords do not want to evict tenants, because it costs £1,800 to end one tenancy and start another. They want the security of knowing that they will have their rent paid regularly, in a timely fashion. Although bad and greedy landlords have given the sector a bad press, a substantial amount of landlords in the private sector are hard-working and understanding. They often have only one property to let out as a contribution to their pension, or as a way of saving for the future. In fact, two thirds of landlords are basic rate taxpayers and are not on high incomes. However, although they are sympathetic to tenants, they know that they too would fall into debt if the rent was not paid.
In conclusion, it is vital that we pause and fix universal credit, ensuring that families are not made homeless due to delays in the system. More widely, we must also increase the number of affordable homes that are available. Only by increasing the numbers of affordable homes being built will we reduce waiting lists, keep rents low and keep families in private rental housing to ease the burden on councils, supporting them to provide excellent social housing for the most vulnerable in our communities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate Stephen Lloyd on securing today’s debate. What we are debating this morning is a serious component of the debate around universal credit, and it is right that we dedicate appropriate time to its consideration.
Colleagues from all parties and of all positions on universal credit will have been as concerned as I was to read research conducted by the National Landlords Association in the second quarter of last year that found that only 20% of UK landlords surveyed say that they are
“willing to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit”.
That comes on top of evidence received in September last year by the Work and Pensions Committee, on which I serve, from the Residential Landlords Association, which stated that 38% of the landlords surveyed said that they were having issues with tenants receiving universal credit going into rent arrears. The same survey found that almost a third of landlords had, in the past year, evicted a tenant in receipt of housing benefit, and that more than two thirds of the evictions had taken place due to rent arrears. That is obviously very worrying and undoubtedly gives Members of Parliament cause for concern.
It is important to recognise that these are not in every case new problems created by universal credit. Many tenants in receipt of housing benefit have been paid housing costs directly for a very long time. Around 70% of housing benefit claimants in the private rental sector have had their housing benefit paid directly rather than to a landlord. The housing element of universal credit is paid in exactly the same way. If people need extra support, their rent can be paid directly to landlords through alternative payment arrangements, and budgeting support can be made available. Claimants whose housing benefit was previously paid directly to a landlord will be offered that option automatically. However, as we have heard in the debate, there are issues with the system. Improvements can be made, and I believe that they should be.
Since the beginning of the universal credit roll-out, the DWP has proven that it is taking a “test and learn” approach, slowly and steadily rolling out the system while fixing and replacing problematic elements. That is why the Government have scrapped the seven-day wait, extended the deadline for repayment of advances, made advances easier to obtain and ensured that all DWP headlines are freephone numbers. For tenants, the DWP has taken numerous steps to prevent claimants from falling into arrears, including improving the processes for verifying housing costs and improving the support given to work coaches in jobcentres so that they can resolve housing issues as they arise.
The Government continue to work closely with landlords, local authorities and other organisations to ensure that claimants are supported. Crucially, it must be noted that when a private sector landlord asks for managed payment of rent to be arranged, it can be done on the provision of documentation evidencing two months of rent arrears. That should prevent unnecessary evictions on grounds of rent arrears, and I hope it does.
It is right that we should debate these issues today; they are incredibly important for our constituents. However, it is also right that we should recognise how cautiously and sensibly the DWP has moved throughout the entire roll-out of universal credit.
I will not, because there are many speakers to come and we are short on time.
The Government have listened to concerns brought by Members and the Work and Pensions Committee, and have acted on them, where necessary, in a calm and considered fashion. I have full confidence that that will continue as we debate the issues surrounding the private rented sector.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. Normally, I would talk about the differences in my constituency—I might go on about it being vast, remote and so on—but my constituency faces absolutely the same issue as the rest of the UK. For example, I had a conversation with a private landlord just the other day who owns quite a lot of property. I suggested to him that he might like to give accommodation to people caught in this trap, and he said, “Oh, no, Jamie. I’m running a business. I’m not a charity. I can’t take these risks. I wouldn’t get the rent paid. That’s for the council to deal with.” That puts in a nutshell the problem that we face of private landlords not wishing to engage. It is true, and it is out there.
As my hon. Friend Stephen Lloyd mentioned, there is a lot of housing out there that we could access. It is absolutely true. Members for any constituency can think of property currently lying empty above shops in town centres. If the right inducements were offered to private landlords, that property could be brought back into the housing market.
For example, one thing that used to work in Scotland was the specific targeting of improvement grants at below-standard or empty properties, which encouraged landlords to invest using the grants and then make the property available. That worked in the past, and could indeed work in future. As Members have said, it is about encouraging private landlords to engage and offering inducements to make it worth their while, so that they do not see it as the difference between running a charity and running a business.
The man to whom I spoke said, “It’s for the council to deal with,” but as we have heard from other Members, councils are completely stretched. If we consider the amount of housing debt that councils must service and the huge chunk that it takes out of the rents coming in, we can see the trap that they are caught in. It is a point for another place and another debate, but the existence of housing debt among local authorities across the UK is a big problem and a millstone around their necks. As we have heard, the six counties of Northern Ireland are addressing the situation, and it works over there. That seems to be a good example to us all. If we are smart, we will look at how they are doing it, carbon copy it and do the same thing ourselves.
Somebody who is no longer with us either in this place or in this world cast some doubt on what society was. It seems to me that we believe that society as a concept has a role. The idea of direct payments to private landlords for the most vulnerable people is absolutely in keeping with the idea of responsible society. My hon. Friend Wera Hobhouse, who has left us now, mentioned that part of the Northern Irish deal was looking after those with disabilities, mental health problems and so on. That seems to me to be exactly what society is about: looking after the most vulnerable, because it is part of our collective responsibility as good human beings.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank my hon. Friend Stephen Lloyd for securing this debate on a crucial subject. The two words “universal credit” are becoming feared and disliked in equal measure across this country. In my constituency, we are not due to experience the full effect of universal credit until June, yet already it is having an impact on the private rented sector. The problems that my hon. Friend and many others have warned about now threaten to put further pressure on a housing sector that is already in trouble, and to push vulnerable families into rent arrears and homelessness.
Just yesterday I heard from a constituent who has been given notice to quit their private rented accommodation. They are not in arrears and never have been, but their landlord has decided to sell his properties, influenced by fears of universal credit and the difficulties that collecting rent from people who are not yet receiving money from the benefit system will cause him. I hear daily tales of other private landlords either increasingly excluding those on benefits or simply opting to sell up. As we have heard, 87% of landlords asked said that they would not accept tenants on universal credit.
As my hon. Friend said, we already face a housing crisis in this country: there is a shortage of social housing while tens of thousands of properties lie empty. In Edinburgh alone, there are more than 20,000 people on the waiting list for a house. The figures quoted for Eastbourne and across the country show us that the situation will only get worse. In the six months for which I have had the privilege of serving Edinburgh West in this place, I have already taken part in numerous debates in which the Government have been urged to stop universal credit and rethink how it works. I make no apologies for urging them to do so again. It is simply not working in the way intended. Instead of making the system simpler, it is making it less helpful and supportive and increasing the threat of debt and homelessness. As my hon. Friends have said, there were warnings, and now we have the concrete evidence in the form of the mounting rent arrears of which every hon. Member has spoken. Private sector landlords have little or no faith that they will continue to receive payment.
I suggest that it is time to act. It is a problem for which a solution is already in place: default payments. Why can we not simply pause and get the Government to re-examine the issue to allow payments to go directly to landlords to reassure them, and to ensure that our constituents continue to have roofs above their heads?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I thank Stephen Lloyd and congratulate him on securing this debate. I was happy to co-sign his request to the Backbench Business Committee, and I am aware of the issues.
I will make some generic comments at the beginning, and then I will refer to Northern Ireland, as other Members have, and what we are doing there. We in Northern Ireland face the issue of how people can pay regularly for their rent in private accommodation. Every day, every week and every month, it is an issue in my office. Where there is a dearth of Housing Executive properties and housing association properties, people must go to private rented landlords for accommodation. There are approximately 4,000 people on the housing list in my constituency. They are in different categories, but around 1,000 of them are priority, which gives an idea of the housing need. The population is growing continuously, so we need to build above and beyond need to catch up. That is some of the background to the problems. As a result, there are not enough houses for the people who apply for housing, so they look elsewhere.
Rents in housing sector properties in Northern Ireland are between approximately £375 and £400—housing association rents are a bit higher again. In private accommodation outside the Housing Executive, people can pay anywhere between £500 and £600. Who pays that difference? The tenant. In some cases, the tenant is unable to pay and can apply for a discretionary payment that helps to meet some of the deficit. That lasts for a year and then they have to apply again. If they are successful, they have another year of a discretionary payment that enables them to pay their rent. I understand that such comments may be helpful to the debate.
A large proportion of people who live in the private rented sector are single parents under financial stress. We must be ever mindful of those people and how we address this issue. For them, finding the balance from minimal financial resources is an increasingly large problem. That is why this debate is so important. I spoke to the Minister beforehand and I am sure that she will be responsive to the concerns that we have all expressed. I want to be helpful to her in referring to some of the things that we are doing in Northern Ireland.
Landlords are faced with real problems. How do they continue to serve people who want private accommodation and work within the Government’s system at the same time? The Government have set moneys aside to increase targeted affordability funding by £40 million in 2018-19 and £85 million in 2019-20. Does that address the issue? From what hon. Members from the mainland have said in this debate, I would gently suggest that it does not. We look to the Minister to see how we can address the problem on the mainland.
The National Landlords Association has furnished me with some correspondence. The result of those problems is that landlords sell their property, and we have more people in poverty and more people seeking accommodation. We have heard about larger numbers of families living together in cramped accommodation. Debt continues to be the problem. In Northern Ireland, we have carried out legislative change. I suggest that the Minister looks at that as a marker of how we could do it better.
The fact is that 4.8 million people or 1.9 million privately renting households are entitled to less housing benefit than before the 2011 reforms. The average decrease is £19 per household per week. The figures show that people in the low-income bracket are suffering most. We need to do something in relation to that.
The National Landlords Association quarterly landlord panel states:
“Just two in 10 landlords…are willing to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit or universal credit”.
That leaves eight landlords who are not prepared to. It is now less than 20%, which is down from 34% in 2013. I am sure the Minister has the background information that came from the Residential Landlords Association, which makes 16 recommendations. I suggest that those recommendations indicate a way and a methodology to address the issues.
My hon. Friend Mr Campbell made a succinct and important intervention. His comment was very salient—I leaned across and said, “Well, that’s my speech nearly over now”. He is a very modest person, but he was on our party’s committee in Northern Ireland that brought forward legislation in Northern Ireland to make a difference. He can take some credit for the changes there, as can our party. It is only fair that we put that on the record and give him the credit that he deserves.
We have legislation in Northern Ireland that clearly encapsulates what we are trying to achieve for everyone in the United Kingdom. Respectfully, if the Minister wanted to put in place something that would be suitable for the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, she could do no better than replicate the legislation and the terminology that we have in Northern Ireland. That will address many of the issues that the hon. Member for Eastbourne raised and that other hon. Members and I have tried to address in our small contributions.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Gray. I congratulate Stephen Lloyd on securing this important debate. It is vital that universal credit failures and the opportunities to fix them are highlighted to the Government at every opportunity, in the hope that they might listen.
The hon. Gentleman spoke eloquently about the problems with payments to claimants, which we raised with the UK Government when the Highland Council was a pilot area in 2013. [Interruption.] I hear my former council colleague, Jamie Stone, agreeing from a sedentary position. This is a cross-party issue, which I will come back to later. The hon. Member for Eastbourne also spoke about the problem with ideologues. I agree that there has been a continued failure to listen. I hope that that will change and that we will get a more positive response from the Minister about actions that could be taken. I will give some examples later on.
I return to my vast and remote mode. One of the warnings that the hon. Gentleman and I and others put to the Government was that the sheer rurality, distance and sparsity of population would present a special challenge when trying to get private landlords to let property.
Tracy Brabin spoke eloquently about the issues that she has witnessed. She talked about universal credit being rolled out, glitches and all. I would go further—we are seeing more than glitches in the roll-out of universal credit. I have witnessed it for nearly five years. These are systemic issues. She mentioned that no child should have to experience these effects, which is absolutely right. This is about the people and their families who are affected in their homes. That hits home the hardest when people come to us with the personal stories of suffering they are enduring. That is when we understand why the Government have to listen and do something about it.
The hon. Lady also talked about the pressures on housing stock and the need to support the private rented sector, saying that 66% of private renters have no savings. That is true and is reflected in my experience, albeit anecdotally. People do not have the ability to inject their own cash into the system because they do not have any cash—it does not exist.
Andrew Bowie mentioned that there are problems that need to be fixed. I welcome the fact that we are hearing that around the Chamber. There is a consensus that these serious issues are hurting people.
Christine Jardine has not yet seen the roll-out in her constituency but is aware that a cold wind is coming. Those of us who have experienced it in our constituencies have seen the devastation that it leaves in its wake.
Jim Shannon made an important point about the price differential between council housing association and private lettings. He asked who pays the difference. If, as we heard earlier, most people do not have private income to fall back on, who does pay the difference? He also made a telling point about the decrease in the already low number of private landlords willing to rent to universal credit claimants, which is backed up in many other pieces of evidence from around the nations of the UK.
Since Inverness was chosen in 2013 as a pilot area for universal credit, we have lived with the problems of a highly dysfunctional system. Originally, Highland Council engaged with great hope. There was and remains support for simplifying the social security regime. There were too many benefits in the past and it was too confusing. In local and national politics of all colours, people got behind the idea of a system with a lot less bureaucracy and hassle for claimants. If only that had been the outcome. Instead, universal credit in its current form has gradually shown itself to be a failure. Worse, its continued roll-out has had a devastating impact on claimants—not just the unemployed, but working people, single parents, the disabled and even the dying—particularly through the toxic legacy of debt and rent arrears.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne described universal credit as a car crash. It is, and its corrosive effect is not restricted to claimants. Landlords in both the public and the private sector feel a knock-on effect, which squeezes incomes, reduces the supply of rented properties for claimants and chokes investment in new building. We in the Scottish National party have called continuously for the roll-out to be halted and fixed. Like those in Northern Ireland, we will use the very limited powers we have to try to mitigate the impact, as we have done with other matters over the past few years, and inject a little fairness and dignity into the system. However, it remains almost entirely a UK-reserved issue and needs to be dealt with.
I have been a noisy witness in the nearly five years since the pilot, when I was leader of the Highland Council. We have tried every approach to get the Tory Government to listen. I was joined by the political voices on the council—regardless of political colour, if any—to highlight the misery that was gradually unfolding before our eyes. We set out the alternatives, asked for changes and relayed the experiences, the frustrations and the inevitable wider impact that the roll-out would have if it was continued without fixing the problems, yet our voices were not listened to, and now we are seeing the pattern repeating itself wherever universal credit is deployed.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne mentioned the public sector. As a result of universal credit, the Highland Council has seen rent arrears rocketing to around £2 million —a signal of the misery, but also a noose around the neck of investment in housing. Vital resources are being drained from the council as it picks up the cost of the universal credit failure.
According to a recent report by the Residential Landlords Association, universal credit is now the main reason for private sector landlords seeking to evict tenants. We have heard a lot of statistics this morning, but 29% of landlords have evicted a tenant for universal credit rent arrears and now only 13% of landlords say that they are willing to rent to universal credit claimants at all. According to the RLA, more than 73% of landlords are unlikely to rent homes to someone claiming universal credit, because they are worried that they will not be able to pay.
The Scottish Federation of Housing Associations says that those problems are putting more pressure on public housing; that the administration of universal credit falls short of what its own service standard should be; and that the schedules that associations receive are beset with errors. The federation’s survey found that the standard of communications between the DWP and landlords was erratic, and made worse by the absence of implicit consent in the universal credit full service roll-out. Arrears are much higher among people on universal credit. The federation says that the shortcomings need to be fixed and that a pause is therefore required.
The DWP has not allowed implicit consent, except through MPs. That hamstrings organisations such as citizens advice bureaux and housing associations, meaning that they cannot effectively help claimants to get their entitlements to retain tenancies. The reliance on explicit consent is impractical, especially in rural areas.
There is a growing worry that the design and the benefits of universal credit are not fit for purpose. It should be the objective of any good enterprise, especially a Government, to listen to the experiences of people affected, especially those delivering a service and those who have been asked to partner and make the required adjustments, but neither I nor anybody else in the highlands have witnessed such a willingness to adapt. The problem has spread to other areas. Landlord after landlord, housing association after housing association, council after council, support group after support group and charity after charity have echoed the calls we have made. Every day, new and more troubling examples of hardship and suffering are exposed. Debt and rent arrears mean long-term damage and lasting harm to communities.
Universal credit, in its current form, is designed to create debt by default—it is constructed that way. What kind of Government create the situation where people and families are turned into debtors, with no hope of escape other than eviction, bankruptcy or both? As the hon. Member for Eastbourne pointed out, some welcome changes were made by the Chancellor in his Budget. However, the Chancellor said in his November Budget speech that he wanted to avoid debt for the Government
“not for some ideological reason but because excessive debt undermines our economic security, leaving us vulnerable”—[Official Report,
He went on to talk about vulnerability to financial shocks. Well, people are facing financial shocks now because of the shambolic handling of universal credit. It should be halted; the messages should be taken on board; and it should be fixed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. I congratulate Stephen Lloyd on securing this really important debate. Many valuable contributions have been made, from which it is really clear that people are experiencing real hardship as a result of the impact of universal credit on ability to pay rent. The example provided by my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft clearly demonstrates the effect of delayed payments, and my hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Newport East (Jessica Morden) spoke about the specific difficulties that single parents face in having a secure home.
It really is important that the Government take action to address the problems with universal credit in the private rented sector. Approximately 5 million households —just over 20% of the total—are in private rented accommodation, and a quarter of those are families with children. That figure is predicted to rise to just under a quarter of all households over the next five years. Some 1.2 million households currently receive housing benefit in the private rented sector, one third of which are in low-paid work and require support to help top up their rent. Prolonged delays in receiving an initial payment of universal credit have led to many claimants being in rent arrears and at risk of eviction.
The Residential Landlords Association has reported that landlords have become increasingly reluctant to rent to universal credit claimants. Two thirds of private landlords are basic rate taxpayers not on high incomes, so they need rents to be paid on time in order to pay their own bills. That puts increased pressure on the social housing sector and local authorities. Councils hit by cuts in funding from central Government are having to set aside large amounts of money to support people affected by the impact of universal credit. Newcastle City Council is spending more than £390,000 of its own resources to support UC claimants, including £88,000 to cover rent arrears; there is more than £1.2 million in uncollected rent across a tenancy base of just 27,000, purely as a result of universal credit. Nearly three quarters of the spending on discretionary housing payments by Conservative-controlled Bath and North East Somerset Council in this financial year has likewise gone to supporting universal credit claimants.
The Government announced a number of changes in the Budget that were designed to address the problems with universal credit. We welcome them as far as they go, but they do not go anywhere near far enough. For example, from February, the Government are to remove the initial seven-day waiting period, so that the wait built into universal credit at the start of a claim will be five weeks rather than six. That is still too long for people on low incomes, who in many cases are unlikely to have savings to tide them over for that period. According to the English housing survey, 66% of private renters have no savings. We need up-to-date statistics on the timeliness of payments, so that we know exactly how long people in each local authority are waiting and whether the five-week target is being met. Will the Minister make a commitment to publish regular statistics on this matter, rather than ad hoc releases when it suits the Government?
From this month, it will be possible for someone to obtain 100% of their estimated universal credit as an advance payment, which will then have to be paid back over a maximum of 12 months. However, the maximum advance for people who made an initial universal credit claim in the run-up to Christmas was only 50%, which will undoubtedly have meant hardship for many families.
If it is possible to estimate someone’s universal credit for the purpose of giving them an advance and to pay that advance within five working days, or on the same day when someone is in immediate need, why do universal credit claimants still have to wait five weeks for an initial payment to be made? Again, will the Minister make a commitment to publish regular statistics on how many people ask for advance payments, how many people receive them and the default rates on repayments? Ministers have stated repeatedly that universal credit is designed to mirror the world of work, but with 58% of new claimants who are moving on to universal credit being paid either fortnightly or weekly prior to claiming, it is time for all claimants to be offered fortnightly universal credit payments.
The Government announced that from April they will introduce a two-week run-on between a housing benefit claim and a new universal credit claim. Again, that is welcome, although it will only help people who have already been claiming housing benefit. The Government have also said that they will make it easier for direct payments to be made to landlords. However, it appears that that is principally aimed at ensuring continuity where a tenant whose housing benefit is already being paid directly to their landlord moves over to claiming universal credit. That is positive, but my Opposition colleagues and I would like to see all tenants offered the option of direct payments. For vulnerable people, who need payments to be made quickly, the need to negotiate with the Department for Work and Pensions for direct payment of housing support to a landlord can take time and effort.
Surely all tenants should have the right for payments to be paid directly to the landlord, and not just those who are vulnerable and have difficulty managing their money. Direct payments provide security for landlords renting to people who are claiming universal credit, providing them with the confidence that they will be paid. Direct payments are especially helpful in the case of people who have formerly been homeless. Private landlords may be much more wary of renting to them, and people who have been homeless may not have had recent experience of managing large bills, such as rent.
The DWP has been working with Crisis on a pilot project in Newcastle whereby people who have been homeless or who are at risk of homelessness because of arrears can have their claimant commitment relaxed while they focus on their housing situation, and they are also offered the opportunity to have their housing support paid directly. Will the Minister, as a matter of urgency, consider issuing guidance to work coaches to identify people who may be in rent arrears and proactively offer them direct payment of housing support? Claimants often appear to be unaware that it is possible for this to be done.
Landlords themselves do not appear to think that the changes announced in the Budget are enough. In a survey carried out by the Residential Landlords Association into the reaction of private landlords to the changes to universal credit, 64% of private landlords said the changes did not give them more confidence to let properties to tenants in receipt of universal credit.
Overall, one of the key reasons for arrears is the level of local housing allowance. LHA rates simply have not kept up with sharply rising rents. They were first cut by the coalition in 2011, and then increases were capped at 1% in both 2014-15 and 2015-16. A freeze was introduced in April 2016, which will last until 2020. According to research by the Chartered Institute of Housing, private sector rents in England grew by an average of 14.6% from May 2011 to May 2017, while wages increased by only 10% in the same period.
That inadequate housing support continues in universal credit. In fact, there is no housing support at all in universal credit for people aged between 18 and 21, unless they are in one of the groups of people who are protected, such as care leavers. Also, the national living wage is set at a lower rate for people under the age of 25, and the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has recently warned about the high levels of debt being incurred by young people just to cover basic household bills such as rent.
I am sorry, but I am really short of time and so cannot give way.
We are all shocked by the sight of people sleeping in the streets. Will the Government think again and restore housing support in universal credit for people aged between 18 and 21?
Overall, the number of working households claiming housing benefit in the private rented sector has more than doubled since 2009. We know that many people, especially many young people, have not just been priced out of home ownership but are finding that their income does not even cover their rent. The DWP’s own data shows that only 7% of private renters claiming housing benefit are unemployed and seeking work. The rest are either already working on low incomes or are currently unable to work.
Just last week, it was reported that the Stop Start Go charity in Manchester has opened new bedsit accommodation for working people who are homeless because they cannot afford the cost of accommodation in the city. On one night in December, a third of people sleeping at the Booth Centre for the homeless in Manchester were actually employed. The DWP’s own data shows that the number of people in work who are being placed in temporary or short-term accommodation rose from 15,500 in August 2013 to more than 22,000 by 2015. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that the private rented sector has grown by a third over the last 12 years, but the number of tenants being evicted has also grown; 7,200 more tenants lost their homes in 2015 than in 2003.
Labour is committed to increasing the national living wage to £10 an hour across the age range; to building at least 100,000 council and housing association homes for genuinely affordable rent or sale; and to reforming universal credit so that it meets its original principles of making sure that work pays and reducing poverty. Labour will also end insecurity for private renters by introducing controls on rent rises, as well as introducing more secure tenancies, landlord licensing and new consumer rights for renters. That is the real way to make work a route out of poverty and to reduce the need for people to claim housing support.
The Government simply refuse to recognise the scale of the shortage of truly affordable housing that exists. At the same time, they are failing to provide housing support at a level that will at least enable people to cope with the consequences of Government inaction and to meet rising rents. In the Budget, the Chancellor conceded that
“House prices are increasingly out of reach for many”.—[Official Report,
Yet he offered more of the same on housing. There was no new Government investment in affordable homes and nothing for private renters. The need for someone to have a roof over their head—a home where they can bring up their family—is a basic human need. By 2021, it is estimated that some 7 million people will be claiming universal credit, more than half of whom will be in work. Where will they live if their wages do not cover their rent and housing support does not make up the shortfall? It is time for the Government to heed the warnings from landlords, the voluntary sector and Opposition Members, and to pause and fix universal credit.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.
I congratulate Stephen Lloyd on securing this important debate on the effect of universal credit on the private rented sector. He is a very committed campaigner and I thank him for his work to help us to improve the delivery of universal credit. Universal credit is an important reform and I am pleased to have this opportunity to talk about it, and hopefully to address the issues that have been raised by Members and some of the misconceptions.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been using a test-and-learn approach to universal credit since the beginning. The roll-out of universal credit is a very long one, which is why we have taken that approach—we want to develop the universal credit system based on the evidence we gather as we go along. I thank Members from across the House for their contributions.
The Government are committed to making work pay and universal credit is transforming the welfare system to ensure that it does so. With universal credit, work always pays and, compared with the old system, people spend more time looking for work and find work faster. Universal credit supports people who can work and cares for those who cannot. For the first time, universal credit supports people who are in work, and encourages and incentivises them to progress and earn more.
Members have raised a number of concerns about the impact of universal credit on private rental sector landlords, which I will seek to address. However, we must remember that universal credit is the largest and most significant welfare reform since the second world war. The Government are listening to stakeholders both in Parliament and externally, and we are well aware of the concerns that have been raised. I will try to address some of those concerns today, and to put Members’ minds at rest where I can do so.
First, I will clarify for the House some of the things that universal credit has not changed, in particular for landlords in the private rental sector. Since 2008, housing benefit has been paid directly to claimants by default, and not directly to landlords. That remains the case with universal credit. In fact, currently only 25% to 30% of housing benefit payments are made directly to landlords in the private rented sector. If private landlords want housing benefit to be paid directly to them, they need to ensure that the relevant criteria are met, which are broadly the same as those for a request for direct payment under universal credit.
What has changed is that universal credit is assessed and paid monthly, to replicate the world of work, as we have already heard. Our ambition is to create a welfare system that encourages people to take greater responsibility for their finances, so that they are ready and prepared to move into the world of work. It means that, where possible, we want to encourage and support people to take responsibility themselves for paying their landlord, but of course we want to ensure that the necessary protections and support are in place to allow them to do that.
We know that the majority of people are comfortable managing their own money. However, for claimants for whom that is not the case, we have put in place support to help them. That is why we have the facility, as I have mentioned, for universal credit to be paid directly to the landlord where appropriate.
The hon. Member for Eastbourne asked for changes further to support private sector landlords and tenants—for example to make it easier for private landlords to have rent paid directly to them by the Department for Work and Pensions. We have always been clear that we will roll out universal credit in a way that allows us to continue to make improvements, as Members will have seen in the Budget before Christmas. We have already made a number of changes to universal credit as part of our engagement with the sector, and we will continue to develop our approach based on the feedback and evidence we collect as we go along. It is important to remember that, by Christmas, only 8% of universal credit had been rolled out, and by the end of January it will still be only 10%.
We have made practical improvements. For example, we have simplified and sped up the process for private rented sector managed payment requests, which can now be done by email and on a single form, with no additional information required, and work is under way further to improve that process in the universal credit full service.
We have also improved and updated the landlord information and have made it easier to find on gov.uk. We have another meeting this month with private rented sector representatives—such meetings happen regularly—and we will check whether they can access the information they need. Members have raised that matter today.
On making it easier for people to get information, there is a long-standing call to reintroduce implicit consent, to allow agencies to assist people with their claims. Will the Minister consider such a reintroduction for universal credit?
We have removed the need for explicit consent. A universal credit claim is the responsibility of the claimant, and implicit consent puts the development of the system at risk. However, it is something that we keep under review.
Some Members may not be aware that we issue a bi-monthly landlord newsletter. Such regular communications and incremental process changes are necessary if we are successfully to introduce this radical and innovative reform, and we will continue to build on them.
We have also made more fundamental changes to make a difference for private sector tenants and landlords. We have recognised that managed payments to landlords in the private rented sector are running at a lower level than expected. We understand that landlords are often small businesses with one or two properties, and that they cannot afford to have rent arrears. That is why we have made three important policy changes for this sector in recent months.
First, in December, as part of the Budget measures, we announced changes to universal credit guidance to ensure that when private sector housing benefit claimants come on to universal credit, we know whether and why they had their rent paid directly to their landlord previously. That will allow our work coaches to determine whether a managed payment to the landlord for universal credit may need to be applied, and will prompt a conversation with the claimant. That change will provide an important safeguard and help to ensure that those who need the support get it from the outset. It will also help to ensure that claimants receive appropriate budgeting support, by providing a further prompt for the work coach to have a discussion with them.
Secondly, we have changed our policy to ensure that when a private rented sector landlord asks for a managed payment to be set up and supplies evidence of two months’ rent arrears, we will implement the managed payment without requiring the claimant’s consent, just as in the old system. That change has already been welcomed by the Residential Landlords Association and shows our commitment to working with landlords to keep improving the system.
Both those changes are designed to ensure that vulnerable claimants who cannot manage a monthly universal credit payment are fully supported, and that landlords receive the rent they are owed.
Thirdly, as set out in the Budget, we will tackle rent arrears by providing claimants with an extra benefit payment equivalent to two weeks’ housing benefit while they transition on to universal credit. We have abolished the seven-day waiting period in universal credit and we have increased the maximum advance payment to up to 100% of a claimant’s indicative award.
A number of Members across the House have spoken about the universal credit monthly payment structure affecting rent being paid to landlords and, therefore, landlords’ willingness to rent to claimants. However, as I have explained, we have systems in place for those who cannot pay the rent directly. It is important that we are fully able to empower those who can be trusted with their own financial affairs. In fact, it would be wrong and insulting to assume that universal credit claimants cannot be trusted to manage their finances.
Members have mentioned reports that some landlords claim they would be unwilling to rent to universal credit claimants, including a recent one from the Residential Landlords Association. Such claims have been made by landlord groups since 2008, when we first started paying housing benefit directly to claimants, but it never seems to have materialised. The evidence shows that the proportion of tenants who are on housing benefit or universal credit has remained broadly consistent for the past 10 years—about 30% of the private rented sector and about 65% of the social rented sector. It would not make financial sense for a business to give up such a large proportion of the market. The way in which universal credit is designed means that landlords would not normally know that a prospective tenant was receiving universal credit. We know that there is anxiety about arrears, which I have addressed, but the fact remains that universal credit is a stable, secure, reliable form of income for claimants and their landlords.
The Department for Work and Pensions regularly engages with private landlords and their representatives. The universal credit team holds quarterly strategic engagement meetings with sector stakeholders, in which it shares the latest updates on universal credit, responds to questions and listens to concerns. Insight from that engagement has already helped us to make numerous process changes to improve interactions with stakeholders. Two examples are the recent changes made to the process for ensuring that managed payments to landlords are put in place where appropriate: treatment under housing benefit and the removal of the need for explicit consent from the claimant.
Department for Work and Pensions staff will continue to work with claimants who have managed payments in place to ensure that they have appropriate budgeting support, and they will remove the arrangements when a claimant is ready. To those private sector landlords who have expressed concerns about renting to universal credit claimants, I say that with the safeguards we have in place, the improved work outcomes that universal credit brings and the personal budgeting support available, such concerns should be groundless.
More attention should be paid to the evidence of universal credit outcomes than to the unhelpful scaremongering of Opposition Members. I can only give in evidence the fact that, in Prime Minister’s questions, the Leader of the Opposition claimed that Gloucester City Homes evicted one in eight tenants—12% of tenants—due to universal credit. That would have been 650 tenants. In fact, it was eight tenants, all of whom had arrears before universal credit was introduced. None of the evictions was as a result of universal credit, and one was because a gentleman had been living in Australia for 18 months.
Universal credit represents a generation-changing culture shift in how welfare is delivered and how people are helped, creating a system that allows people to break free from dependency, take control of their lives, and work. Universal credit picks up from a deeply flawed system and strives to solve problems that were previously thought intractable. In that old system, complexity and bureaucracy so often served to stifle claimants’ independence, limit their choices and constrain their outlook. We have shown with our actions, and have demonstrated here today, that we are listening and learning and are making the changes necessary to implement this historic reform safely, securely and with careful regard to our stakeholders.
I appreciate the Minister’s response. She is absolutely right that the changes announced at the Budget show that the Government were listening. Some Opposition Members are slightly frustrated though, because we had been making our criticisms for a long time and an awful lot of people had to go through a very difficult period, even possibly losing their homes, before the changes were made. However, this is a step in the right direction and I urge the Minister to continue to press with her colleagues to keep going.
We all know that there is a severe housing crisis across the country. Regarding universal credit and the changes in the default payment, if the Government were prepared to go that one step further, working with the Residential Landlords Association and others, there would be an opportunity to open up significantly the private sector to universal credit claimants. That would significantly reduce the homelessness challenges we face, and I urge the Government to keep pushing.
I am grateful for the support in today’s debate. We all understand that there are good things about universal credit, but a lot of the roll-out has been a car crash. However, it is getting better. I urge the Government to keep listening to us and, most importantly—
Motion lapsed (