Welfare Benefits Reports

 

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Welfare Benefits Reports

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Welfare Benefits Report

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July 2014 Introduction The Welfare Reform Act 2012 is an Act of Parliament in the United Kingdom which makes changes to the rules concerning a number of benefits offered within the British social security system. It was enacted by the Parliament of the United Kingdom on 8 March 2012. Among the provisions of the Act are changes to housing benefit which came into force on 1 April 2013. These changes include an "under-occupancy penalty" which reduces the amount of benefit paid to claimants if they are deemed to have too much living space in the property they are renting. Although the Act does not introduce any new direct taxes, the penalty for empty bedrooms has been characterised by the Labour Party and some in the media as the "Bedroom Tax", linking it with the public debate about the "Poll Tax" in the 1990s.Advocating the Act, the Chancellor of the Exchequer stated that the changes would reduce welfare dependency and support working families. Working-age people have had their Housing Benefit cut if the Government considers them to have a ‘spare’ bedroom in their housing association home. They lose 14 per cent of the benefit for one ‘spare’ bedroom, meaning an average loss of £12.31 a week on Merseyside, according to the research. Tenants lose 25 per cent for two or more ‘spare’ bedrooms – an average of £22 a week on Merseyside. Cobalt Housing pre-empted the changers and the effect it would have on the business and set up a Welfare benefits advice team in June 2012 to provide welfare benefits advice to Cobalt Tenants and to provide in house support and expertise. Panel Members taking part in this review Larry Shelbourne (Chair) Phyllis Booth (Vice Chair) Debbie Mottram (Secretary) Rhona Parker Janet Heckingbottom Edith Hodge Ronnie Thomas. Joan Johnson Sophia Muncaster

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Beryl Robinson William Tynan Sandra Tynan 1 Background How was this service identified? The Scrutiny panel in April 2013 identified that there may be a problem with the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the effect it would have on Cobalt Housing. (The so called bed room tax was a particular area of concern) The panel, on advice, postponed their review until April 2014 to allow the changes to take place so they would have a better understanding the effect that the reforms would have on Cobalt Housing and their tenants. In conducting our review, we have: Received an initial overview Andrew Wilson Welfare Benefits Team Leader (and members of his team) along with John Burghall the Rents Manager who provided the scrutiny panel with a presentation on how Cobalt Housing are responding to Welfare Reforms and how they are preparing for Universal Credit The Welfare Benefits Team In April 2012 Andrew Wilson was invited By the Cobalt Housing Board to start-up a Welfare Benefits service. He was quickly followed by two other advice workers and they started to give tenants advice. The team now consists of a team leader, three specialist advice workers, administration officer, administrative apprentice and a universal credit/financial inclusion officer. Due to the number of cases referred to the Welfare Benefits team Cobalt Board agreed to increase the team’s size over the 2 years. How do they deliver the service? The Welfare Benefits Team offers drop in surgeries, arranged appointments, home visits and appeals representation. The appointment time wait varies depending on what it is (so if it’s a form that has to be in by a particular date o r an eviction a member of the team will see someone more quickly). At the moment for a “routine” appointment the waiting time can be around 10 days. For an urgent issue they would see someone – on the day or the next day If people walk in at a drop-in session they are seen on the same day if possible. Usually number is around six people each morning. If the session is very busy or there is are particular types of long forms to be completed then they may book an appointment for the client and ask them to come back for a longer appointment.

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Rent officers refer all pre-warrant approval case to the Benefits team or other agencies such as Citizens Advice 2 The service is open all Cobalt Tenants and working people use the service. Many working people still have benefits and debt issues such as tax credits, housing benefit, income tax, child support and we see them all the time. What service do they provide? • • • • • • • • • The team provide benefit advice, Help with claims and appeals for housing benefit and other benefits. Bedroom Tax advice and appeals Assist with benefit reviews and appeals Help with negotiations and applications to court to suspend evictions Rent Officers refer all pre-warrant approval cases to the team Advice and help with bills and priority debts If we can’t help we signpost or refer to someone who can Training and information for Cobalt Housing staff and the Board, Welfare Benefits Team Main Principles • • Trust Tenants have to trust that the benefits team are here to help them as our key purpose and not with other agendas. So for example that the Advice Team will give advice that’s in the tenant’s best interests and not put collecting the rent or other issues first. Confidentiality When dealing with peoples sensitive personal business and finances and people won’t share everything with the benefits advisor (we need to know the full facts to give proper advice) if they think we will pass information on to others. Independent advice Like Trust, the tenant needs to know that the advice given is not influenced by managers or anyone else getting Being impartial The team treat every tenant as equally important whether they are man/women, whatever ethnic group, whatever religion, whatever nationality, disabled. • • • Publicity The Welfare Benefits team work is publicised in newsletters, attached to rent statements, Facebook, Cobalt Housing website, speaking to groups, working with

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other advice centres and the Liverpool Welfare Reform Group. A flyer is attached (see appendix 1) to rent statements giving information of the service they offer 3 Responding to Welfare Reforms The Welfare Benefits Team results since its inception, include the following-: Money gained for tenants is £2.4 Million, This is the total of both extra money gained and money that would have been lost if we hadn’t intervened. For example if a tenant’s ESA is stopped and we appeal then we would count the money awarded from the date it’s stopped. 3,336 tenants have been contacted. This is the tenants that have received advice. Most of them will have contacted us themselves, some will have been sent to us by the other Cobalt Teams like the Rents Team. 359 rent officer referrals All at pre-warrant or warrant stage so they had had court orders for a while and were actually facing eviction very soon as the Director had authorised a warrant for eviction be sought from the Court or a warrant had actually been issued. Sometimes a Member of the benefits team will fill in a form with the tenant to get evictions stopped the day before the eviction is due to happen. 110 home visits Home visits take more time from the advice worker but we will try to go out to anyone who is housebound – this is usually because they are elderly or physically disabled. (We have sometimes had a problem where people ask for home visit when they really don’t need one, but not too often). 120 food vouchers issued. (This has increased significantly since 2012/2013) The St Andrew’s Food bank run the Food Voucher scheme – they are registered with the Trussell Trust which is the national food bank body and are very good. The Food is all donated by the local public – and paid for this way. Cobalt Housing staff have had collections and dress-down days to help support the Food bank too. The Food bank organisation gets some help from the Council and Lottery to run the scheme . Completed 646 DHP applications, 404 of these have been since January2014

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In January 2014 the local authority received additional funding from the Department of Work and Pension’s (DWP) for Discretionary Housing Payments. (DHP) In cases were arrears had accrued as a result of the bedroom tax they considered applications to clear the arrears and pay DHP until 31st March 4 The Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP) are grants from the Council to help people who can’t afford to pay the Bedroom Tax. The Welfare Benefits team have been gradually spreading the word about these so more and more people have known about them and been able to apply. In January 2014 the Council let the Housing Associations, including Cobalt Housing, send in much simpler applications and can be sent as whole block instead of one by one and using our own records as meant that a lot of people got the extra help. The rents office worked on identifying cases and passed them on to the welfare benefits team to make the applications outside of normal working hours. As a result of this work there were in excess of 400 successful applications at a value of in excess of £150,000. Successfully achieved 251 bedroom exceptions Welfare benefits team check the circumstances of everyone who come in for advice and also put out information and standard letters in our newsletters and on the website (and by talking to everyone we meet) Whenever someone met the conditions (e.g. they need a room for an overnight carer) a letter is sent or e-mailed to the Council to ask for a review or an appeal to gain the exemption Prevented 258 evictions. Tenant’s benefits checked and often can either get an increase in their benefit or try to find backdated Housing Benefit on the account, then sort out an affordable way that the tenant can meet the rent and keep their house. Once this done (a member of the team will work confidentially with the tenant) then go to the Rents Officers or the Court who will agree to stop the eviction. It’s quite exciting work – it usually works, but not always. Conclusion The Welfare Benefits team have responded well to the reforms. The team have done advance work to pre-empt the effect the reforms will have on Cobalt’s tenants and the business. They are now currently preparing for Universal credit. They are working closely with the credit unions and Cobalt Solutions When universal credit is rolled out all the rent will be paid directly to the tenant and not to Cobalt. There is still some uncertainty on the date that it will be introduced but the team are actively preparing for this. The panel discussed the information that was delivered from the team. They all agreed that the Welfare Benefits team were doing an excellent job in helping the tenants and keeping the business financial stable.

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The Scrutiny Panel acknowledged that the team were doing everything possible to combat the welfare reforms and they all agreed that the panel did not need to scrutinise the service any further at this time but reserve the right to revisit if requested. 5 The Scrutiny Panel Acknowledgements The panel would like to thank The Welfare Benefits Team Leader Andrew Wilson and his team Also John Burghall the Rents Manager for their informative presentation and in-depth information regarding Welfare Benefits The panel would like to congratulate Cobalt Housing Board for their forward thinking, by seeing a problem early in 2012 and appointing a Welfare Benefits team to oversee The Welfare Reform Act 2012 to elevate the problems the Act would bring to Cobalt Housing finance and the effect it would have on their tenants. The panel would also like acknowledge the hard work of the rent officers by going the extra mile for Cobalt Housing Tenants. In January the local authority received additional funding from the Department of Works and Pensions for Discretionary Housing Payments (DHP). Subsequently the Rents Manager and the rent officers were asked to complete DHP forms for tenants in cases where their tenancy was at risk and arrears had accrued as a result of the bedroom tax they had until 31st March to consider applications to clear the arrears and pay DHP. The rents officers (in some cases late at night from home) worked on identifying cases and they were passed to the welfare benefits team to make the applications outside of normal working hours. As a result of this work they were able to make over 400 successful applications at a value of in excess of £150,000.

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Appendix 1 7 Appendix 2

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Finances worsening for social tenants on low incomes 17/04/2014 Two in three low-income households living in social housing feel their finances have worsened in the last year, according to a survey. Charity Turn2us, which helps people access benefits and other financial help, surveyed 2,008 adults on incomes of £25,000 or less. Of these, 65 per cent of the 308 social tenants surveyed said their financial situation has worsened in the last year. The survey, released to coincide with Turn2us’ annual Benefits Awareness Month, has found that on average, people living in social housing are forced to spend more than half of their monthly income on utility bills and food. Just under half - 47 per cent - of social housing tenants said their outgoings now outweigh their earnings. A total of 53 per cent of social housing tenants have had no choice but to cut back on food and other essentials. Health is also being put at risk, with more than a third of those surveyed - 36 per cent reporting being unable to sleep and experiencing depression. Alison Taylor, director of Turn2us said: ‘Our research shows that the stranglehold on pay, underemployment and the climbing cost of living all show no signs of easing and any economic improvements are failing to reach the UK’s poorest people. ‘It is clear that more needs to be done to combat poverty, especially for those people in work. 8

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