The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has defended Universal Credit despite a sharp rise in people left unable to pay their rent in the parts of Scotland where the benefit was first launched.
DWP bosses faced questions from MSPs after hearing rent arrears have increased by an estimated £5.7 million in areas where Universal Credit was first rolled out.
Although they said they have “done an awful lot” to address problems with the new benefit, roughly 15% of people’s first payments are still late or wrong.
Addressing members of the Holyrood’s Social Security Committee about housing issues for Universal Credit claimants, Derek Kilday from the DWP in Scotland argued payments are “in a much, much better place now” compared to when the system was launched.
Mr Kilday explained that, for the past few months, 85% of people on Universal Credit are getting paid correctly and on time.
But he said: “It was a long way south of that 85% a few months ago – and a year or two ago – which I think is part of that history and problems that people are rightly talking about.
“A fair proportion of that other 15% will be people who haven’t provided the information we need to verify something or haven’t been willing to sign a claimant commitment.”
Committee convener Bob Doris raised questions about research by local authority umbrella group Cosla, looking at rent arrears in East Lothian, Highlands, Midlothian and East Dunbartonshire – where Universal Credit was first introduced in Scotland.
“In the two years from March 31 2016, it was estimated that rent arrears increased by 26%,” Mr Doris said.
He was asked what the officials blamed for the rise of the debts.
Mr Kilday responded: “We do know that a lot of these people – especially in the areas you mentioned – arrived with pre-existing rent arrears before they went on to Universal Credit.”
Richard d’Souza, head of the Universal Credit engagement division, set out some of the ways it has tried to improve the situation for people moving on to the benefit, such as extending the repayment time for any advanced payments from 12 to 16 months.
He said: “What I think we did find, in particular in the early stages of Universal Credit rollout, was that there were some issues in terms of implementation that did lead to some difficulties so we’ve done an awful lot to address them.
“Now, we’ve really promoted advances – people can get a 100% advance, pretty well from the first day of the claim of their full Universal Credit entitlement, and something like 60% of people are taking that up.
“If you look back two or three years, it was a much, much smaller percentage and it was only a 50% advance, so that sort of thing has really helped to enable people to pay their rent up front.”
He said there was also a “real mishmash of information” in the social housing sector, adding “it took us a long time to verify that information which led to delays in payments and so that caused problems.”
DWP officials were also questioned about benefit sanctions and the impact they have on claimants.
Peter Searle, DWP policy director for working age benefits, said: “Sanctions is an absolute last resort – all our people in Scotland know that, they understand that.”
He also revealed no sanctions from Scottish job centres are now applied without being checked and approved by a manager.