A LEADING Scots housing body has warned that increasing numbers of people on benefits are at greater risk of homelessness as rent arrears soar under a controversial new benefits pilot scheme being rolled out across Scotland.
The Chartered Institute of Housing in Scotland (CIH Scotland) has warned that the new Universal Credit to date has led to tenants finding it increasingly difficult to pay their rent.
And the organisation has also raised fears of a return to the old ‘No DSS’ culture that restricted access to the private rented sector for many benefit claimants during the 1980’s.
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Welfare Reform Impact, a recent report published by the HouseMark consultancy group showed the average rent arrear debt of a Universal Credit claimant was £618 compared to average non-UC arrears of £131.
MPs have already launched an official inquiry into Universal Credit amid growing concerns that design flaws in the new benefits system are leaving thousands of low-income claimants facing eviction and reliant on food banks.
Holyrood’s Social Security Committee has already met with administrative staff and claimants in the Musselburgh pilot area and heard about unacceptable delays of eight or nine weeks in being paid benefits, pushing people into rent arrears. Committee members also heard local jobcentres are ill-equipped to effectively support claimants.
The single payment replaces six benefits – income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit – and is paid directly to claimants.
Universal Credit has been introduced in pilot areas in Scotland ahead of a planned roll-out and Holyrood’s Social Security Committee has written to Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green urging him to address “fundamental, systemic issues” with the payment before it is expanded.
Now CIH Scotland has raised "serious concerns" about the roll-out of saying its members on the frontline of housing provision are reporting a "substantial increase in rent arrears" as a result of delayed payments as well as inconsistencies in communication with Department of Work and Pensions staff.
One of the most "significant failings" is the 'designing in' of a six week minimum wait period before claimants receive their first payment which is "setting people up to fail".
CIH Scotland said: "It is causing significant numbers of claimants to fall into rent arrears or to build up exisiting arrears leading to increased stress, increased use of food banks and risk of eviction and homelessness."
CIH Scotland Executive Director Annie Mauger said: “As the process of rolling out Universal Credit continues, we are increasingly being made aware of serious issues with implementation including spiralling costs of supporting tenants with the transition and severe hardship for the tenants themselves in terms of delayed payments, increasingly restricted access to private renting and a growing risk of homelessness.
"This experience runs directly contrary to the Scottish Government’s own aspirations to create a social security system that is based on the principles of respect and dignity.
“Aside from the human cost, these problems are placing real strain on local budgets and services that are already overstretched and facing the ongoing pressure of cuts. With many aspects of social security still reserved, we would urge the Scottish and UK Governments to redouble their efforts to work constructively together to find sustainable long-term solutions to these problems.”
The new concerns have been raised as CIH Scotland gears up for its annual conference which is due to take place at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow on the 14th and 15th March.
A DWP spokesman said: “Universal Credit is transforming the welfare system by making work pay and helping more people get into employment. As CIH Scotland acknowledges, we’ve added flexibility as we've rolled out Universal Credit - and we continue to work with local authorities and landlords to target extra support to the most vulnerable, with £870m available in discretionary housing payments."