Who will put up their hands to deliver local welfare under Universal Credit?
Published by 24publishing for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Central Government, Communities, Local Government
'Local welfare' critical to success of Universal Credit
Deven Ghelani - one of the architects of Universal Credit - says local welfare delivery will have a critical role to play in the successful implementation of the new benefits system.
Local authorities are heavily involved in the run-up to Universal Credit and have been invited to run pilots to test innovative ways of managing the transition. At the time of writing this article, we know that a dozen local authorities have been shortlisted by the LGA ahead of the final selection process by the DWP. Congratulations to those that are ultimately selected.
We believe that all 30 or so local authorities that submitted a bid for the Universal Credit pilots deserve a round of applause and our recognition for not only thinking seriously about how best to deliver local welfare in their area, but deciding to take this opportunity to forge an active role. But not all local authorities feel able at this stage to take a positive lead in carving out a new welfare role, which will be undoubtedly herald a major shift in their responsibilities.
The challenge for local authorities
From speaking with members, chief executives and revenues and benefits managers at over 40 different local authorities, we understand the mood. Local authorities certainly have a very significant challenge in simply managing the raft of welfare reform changes that are coming their way – any one of which would be a major project in itself. Some feel overwhelmed, 24housing magazine editor, Jon Land, summarised this in a single quote following the recent Local Government Association conference on welfare reform: "They left with their head in their hands"
Over the course of our visits, the Welfare Reform Club has helped to give local authorities confidence in their ability to manage the challenge of reform and how they can play an active role in the transition to Universal Credit. We were asked to support several local authorities in their Universal Credit pilot bids.
We have seen that local authorities and housing associations that accept that they have a key and developing role in welfare reform are the first to engage constructively with it. This means that they and their delivery teams are better prepared for reform and are able to influence the local, and the national welfare agenda.
The Welfare Reform Club
Paul Howarth, Malcolm Gardner and I met each other about two years ago in early 2010, shortly after the Government had launched their consultation on 21st century welfare.
At the time, Paul was a civil servant at the DWP, Malcolm acted as an adviser to local authority revenues and benefits departments and I was one of the architects of Universal Credit as welfare specialist at the Centre for Social Justice. From our different vantage points we could see that Universal Credit was coming and what that would mean for local authorities.
We formed the Welfare Reform Club because we believe that local welfare delivery will have a critical role to play in the successful implementation of Universal Credit. Universal Credit payments are largely transactional, for the benefit system to transform people’s lives, it needs to have people, and strong local relationships at its heart. Local authorities that want to see welfare reform make a difference in their area need to put up their hands and confidently make their case.
Accept, engage and articulate
Over the course of our many visits to local authorities across the country, we have seen best practice coming from engaged executive boards and benefit managers, working with local stakeholders, including social landlords, Jobcentre Plus and the advice sector.
The best prepared local authorities quickly accept their key role in implementing welfare reform successfully. Those who don’t influence the reform agenda now, will have to accept the outcome in the future. The opportunity to influence the DWP on local welfare delivery is far greater now than it will be in 2014.
Forward thinking councils are engaging with the government agenda and understand the transformation that the DWP are trying to achieve: The welfare system has been too single minded, focused on administering benefit payments. In future it has to be a system focused on helping the customer into work and toward independence.
Universal Credit: Supporting people toward Work, More Work and Independence.
Good local authorities talk about welfare reform with senior management, with local stakeholders and with delivery staff. By beginning to articulate their vision for local welfare, they bring the topic into the open – those affected are already talking about it – it creates space for a constructive discussion that can lead to a shared and agreed upon local approach.
No one organisation in the region is best placed to deliver welfare locally. All the players and parts are there, but they need to be drawn together under a single strategy. We have helped local authorities to facilitate independent and open discussions with key local stakeholders around an agreed common goal: delivering a welfare system that is as effective as possible at supporting claimants into work and toward independence.
Housing associations should always be part of this discussion. The welfare system impacts upon the lives of their tenants, and they are often well placed to offer support. Every local authority will deliver elements of local welfare, and retain responsibility for housing. Customers will still come to councils for council tax support and local welfare assistance, and housing associations may find it is in their interests to be involved in managing this demand for advice and support. It makes financial sense to combine elements of Universal Credit with local support, and to solve multiple claimant enquiries from a single contact point.
Local authorities that fail to engage may well be waiting a long time for information and guidance from central government, learning from pilots will take time to digest, prescribed models may not be the best option in your local area and in areas such as council tax support and local welfare assistance, the guidance is that it is up to you.
Local authorities and housing associations have to accept that welfare reform is coming and realise that the longer they leave it to engage the less say they will have on how it will impact on their organisation, their finances and on their customers’ lives.
All this is a massive challenge and levels of commitment and engagement are bound to vary. That is why we have set up the Welfare Reform Club to help all local authorities take the challenge forward and to support those authorities who need additional help in doing so.
The Welfare Reform Club is part think-tank, part discussion forum and part consultancy, with the overall aim of promoting the role of local authorities in delivering welfare reform. It offers a novel blend of web-based support, workshops and conferences, together with solid, practical consultancy.