FEWER than half of benefit claimants are having their rent paid directly to landlords, a low take up which is feared to be driving more people into poverty.

A majority of individuals who get the housing element of Universal Credit (UC) are receiving the payment themselves, a practice critics believe can lead to rent arrears.

Labour MSP Mark Griffin said:

“Using new social security powers to ensure housing benefit is automatically paid direct to landlords to protect the roof over people’s heads is a no brainer.”

Universal Credit, a means-tested payment which is replacing a number of existing benefits, is one of the biggest shake ups of the social security system in decades and is being rolled out across the the UK.

Although the benefits system is largely reserved to Westminster, Holyrood has flexibility over some payments as well as having top up powers.

Under the Scotland Act 2016, Scottish Ministers can introduce flexibilities in relation to who receives UC and when.

Options include paying UC twice a month rather than every four weeks, splitting payments between partners in a household, and paying the UC housing element directly to social and private sector providers.

Surveys by housing associations have also found that UC claimants are more than twice as likely to be in rent arrears as people who did not claim the benefit.

However, of the 75,138 UC households in Scotland that receive the housing element of the payment only goes to the landlord in 31,872 of cases.

The number of UC households not signed up to direct payment currently stands at 43,266.

In evidence to Holyrood last month, John Blackwood, chief executive of the Scottish Association of Landlords, said UC should go straight to accommodation providers in all cases. He said:

“Private landlords in Scotland want to provide high quality accommodation to anyone who wants it, including those receiving Universal Credit. However, landlords are constantly frustrated and discouraged from doing so because of the uncertainty inherent in the current system.

“We want to see changes made that would see the housing element paid directly to landlords in all instances. This would provide a degree of certainty and help prevent tenants getting into rent arrears, thus encouraging private landlords to continue to provide housing to those on Universal Credit.

“This increase in supply would help to tackle homelessness and reduce the pressure on councils to provide temporary accommodation which is sometimes of very poor quality.”

Griffin said: “Across the country thousands are suffering the misery of Universal Credit, and are still having to juggle paying the rent heating their home or eating. We need to do more to prevent arrears building up, risking low-income families becoming homeless.

“Last year, Holyrood unanimously agreed payments of Universal Credit should be automatically split amongst both members of a couple and, with growing support from landlords and experts across the housing system, it’s time we did the same for rental payments.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We think it is important that the person has the choice about whether or not to have the housing cost element of their UC award paid to their landlord, just as they have choice if they are paid monthly or twice monthly.

“In line with our social security principles of respect, dignity and fairness, we support people to make an informed choice based on their own needs and what works best for them.”