A Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) digital portal designed to interact with councils over rent and universal credit status has saved time but “poor digital interaction” is leaving staff lacking information and unable to make ‘sensible’ decisions, a member of a London council has said.
Councillor Fiona Colley, cabinet member for finance, modernisation and performance at Southwark, told UKAuthority that they are ‘operating in the dark’ when it comes to universal credit claims due to “poor digital interaction between DWP and us as a local authority landlord".
"It’s slowing things down in terms of how well universal credit can be processed and how well we can access the information we need for rent collection.”
There are more than 4,000 universal credit claimants in the borough, one of the first local authorities in the country to fully roll out the beleaguered system.
The council currently shares information with DWP via an online tool, the Landlord Portal, introduced in April. The portal provides housing staff with information including a ‘to-do list’ of new claims, and a request from DWP to verify if the person is a tenant, the rent level and service charge and whether the tenant is in rent arrears.
Staff submit the information to DWP from the portal and a notification is sent back to say that the data has been received. “It’s not telling us if universal credit is approved, if the housing element is being paid or how much the tenant is liable for. We’ve not got access to data we had before to make a sensible decision."
She said that not knowing the status of the universal credit claims means that there is now a danger that the council could take “unnecessary action against tenants because we don’t know what’s going on”.
"Previously, we had full access to information and could take sensible decisions and necessary legal actions. We are now finding it very difficult to know what’s going on,” she said. "We’re very much operating in the dark in a way that’s completely unnecessary.”
This is of particular concern as the council is seeing a rise in rent arrears among the 12% of tenants who claim universal credit in the borough. “We still have three times that on Housing Benefit that will gradually move to Universal Credit. We’re seeing rent arrears going up and we’ve got to make this work.”
Colley said the problem also impacts on the provision of benefits information to tenants. “If they want to know what’s going on, they have to call a high rate phone line; the information is not online. There’s no assumption that even a major council like Southwark has consent to give information. We need to have the tenant sitting next to us.
“There’s the potential for digital tools to get proper access and information we’d expect as a trusted landlord, to know where claims are at, if there’s [a tenant in] arrears, if rent is going to be paid directly. There’s often a delay between DWP agreeing to that and money landing in our account. There’s a lot further it could go in terms of a case management system."
Looking ahead, Colley said the portal needs to be a “digital tool at the heart of communication between the DWP and landlords to help the process run smoothly. Information sharing could and should be done digitally, but it isn’t at the level it should be. We could go so much further.”
Colley puts the communication barriers partly down to "the ideological attachment in policy on universal credit about the tenant taking responsibility for telling them rent levels and who their landlord is," she said. "I appreciate that ethos but the reality is not practical. They need to take data from us and trust that the data is right."
The portal’s single view of information is however an improvement on the previous means of communication with the department, said Colley. Previously, DWP sent the council forms in Excel which benefits staff filled in and emailed back. These were “Lost in inboxes, there was a lack of record keeping and we couldn’t prove we’d sent information,” she said.
“Since the introduction of the portal, we’ve improved the rate at which we provide DWP with rent levels and for 93% of new claims, we’re putting in rent details within five days. Prior to that, it was taking longer as it was a very manual process.”
Colley this week gave evidence to a Work and Pensions Select Committee meeting to examine the problems hampering progress of universal credit, along with representatives from other councils, Citizens Advice and Housing associations and landlord associations.
“The committee seemed to take our evidence on board. The question now is whether government ministers listen", Colley said. The committee will give further evidence to the minister next month.