A Lincolnshire property company has threatened all of its tenants with eviction if they fail to pay their rent because of delays in receiving universal credit payments, sending all tenants pre-emptive notices ahead of the rollout of the welfare reform.
The letter from GAP Property in Grimsby was highlighted by Jeremy Corbyn in his weekly clash with Theresa May at prime minister’s questions. Corbyn said tenants of the property management company faced the prospect of being made homeless before Christmas. May said she would look into the “particular case” raised by the Labour leader.
GAP Property said the changes would affect the vast majority of its tenants and it needed to take action to avoid a slew of rent arrears.
Universal credit is due to be rolled out across north-east Lincolnshire from 13 December and new applicants will have a minimum six-week wait for their first payments, though many have reported longer delays.
What is universal credit?
Universal credit is the supposed flagship reform of the benefits system, rolling together six benefits (including unemployment benefit, tax credits and housing benefit) into one, online-only system. The theoretical aim, for which there was general support across the political divide, was to simplify the benefits system and increase the incentives for people to work, rather than stay on benefits.
Plenty. Landlords are worried about the level of rent arrears racked up by tenants on universal credit. Unchecked, this will lead to a spike in evictions. Claimants complain that universal credit is bafflingly complex, unreliable, and difficult to manage, particularly if you are without internet access. Multibillion-pound cuts to work allowances imposed by the former chancellor George Osborne mean universal credit is far less generous than originally envisaged. According to the Resolution Foundation thinktank, about 2.5m low-income working households will be more than £1,000 a year worse off when they move on to universal credit.
The letter from the agency, seen by the Guardian, says it is “not intended to cause alarm, rather to inform you of the problems that could very well occur during the rollout of universal credit”.
It calls the flagship welfare reform “an extraordinary event that requires both you and us to take extraordinary measures”.
It tells tenants: “GAP Property cannot sustain arrears at the potential levels universal credit could create (this affects the vast majority of our tenants), therefore we find it necessary to issue your Notice Seeking Possession … that has been enclosed to be exercised only in the event that you fail to pay your rent in accordance with the terms of your tenancy (in full and on the due date).”
The letter warns tenants will face eviction if there is a delay in payment to the landlord. “IF YOU DO NOT PAY YOUR RENT WE WILL HAVE NO OPTION BUT TO ASK YOU TO LEAVE AND RECOVER LOSSES FROM YOUR GUARANTOR,” it writes, in capital letters.
The letter also includes a formal notice of possession as well as a guide to universal credit for tenants.
The company’s website says the agency was established more than 30 years ago by Guy Piggott, chair of the local Humber Landlords Association, with a “wide range of properties from rooms in shared houses, flats, to five-bedroom detached houses”.
Quoting from the letter during PMQs, Corbyn said: “Will the prime minister pause universal credit so it can be fixed? Or does she think it is right to put thousands of families through Christmas in the trauma of knowing they are about to be evicted because they are in rent arrears because of universal credit?”
In response, May said she wanted to “look at the issue of this particular case” but said the government wanted people to be able to manage their own budgets.
“There have been concerns raised over the issue of people being able to manage their budgets to pay rent,” she said. “What we see after four months is that those on universal credit in rent arrears has fallen by one-third.”
The six-week wait was the central concern of the group, which includes Heidi Allen and Johnny Mercer, and the government is expected to reduce it, most likely by eliminating the seven-day mandatory waiting time at the start of any new claim.
The move comes as MPs prepare to vote on a cross-party motion to cut the wait for a first payment from 42 days to a month. The backbench business debate in the House of Commons on Thursday will focus on the recommendations of the recent work and pensions committee inquiry report on universal credit.
The committee chair, Frank Field, warned that a government defeat would send a clear message to ministers that the long wait had to go: “Universal credit’s design and implementation have been beset with difficulties that knock claimants into hunger, debt and homelessness, but the most glaring of these in the first instance is the six-week wait for payment.
“I doubt many households in this country could get by for six weeks, and for many, much longer, with no income, never mind those striving close to the breadline. The baked-in wait for payment is cruel and unrealistic and government has not been able to offer any proper justification for it.”
Last month, a committee report described the 42-day wait as a “major obstacle” to the policy’s success. It found the delay caused claimants to run up debts and/or turn to foodbanks. “Most low-income families simply do not have the savings to see them through such an extended period,” it said.
The Resolution Foundation has estimated that cutting the waiting time to four weeks would cost the government £150m-£200m a year. It is unclear where the Treasury would find the money.
The thinktank said in a recent report: “The foundation recommends shortening waits considerably by scrapping the current seven-day waiting period and compressing payment processing days to ensure payments happen a week and a half earlier.”
The government is unlikely to go lower than four weeks because the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) uses one month’s of earnings data to calculate recipients’ entitlements. The universal credit system uses monthly payments as part of its aim to mimic earnings.
A government source told Sky News that a concession on the waiting time would come early next week, as Philip Hammond, the chancellor, prepares to deliver the budget on Wednesday.
Universal credit, which combines six benefits, is being progressively rolled out across the country. It is meant to improve work incentives, but has been made significantly less generous since it was first designed, as the Treasury seeks to cut the welfare bill.
Hammond has stressed to cabinet colleagues that there is little cash to spare to cushion the blow of the new system, but his focus on balancing the books is frustrating fellow Tory MPs, who are concerned about the electoral impact of continued austerity.
A Treasury spokesman refused to comment on reports that the budget would soften the universal credit regime.
The employment minister Damian Hinds said: “I won’t be commenting on budget speculation, but we have made clear that no one has to wait for six weeks before they get their first full payment because they can get an advance, which is interest-free and recovered over six months.
“We have always said that we are continually looking to improve the system and the bottom line is that universal credit is working and getting more people into work.”
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has repeatedly made universal credit his focus at prime minister’s questions, and Labour held an opposition day debate on the issue last month in an attempt to expose Conservative divisions and draw attention to concerns about the system.
The DWP recently announced that charges for calling the universal credit helpline would be scrapped, after Corbyn complained that it was costing up to 55p a minute.
The proposed shortening of the waiting time was welcomed by anti-poverty charities and thinktanks, although there were concerns that four weeks was still too long for low-income claimants to wait, and more needed to be done to restore the benefit’s flagging credibility.
David Finch, a senior economic analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said: “Questions remain over how long the wait will be reduced by, and whether more flexibility can be built into the system, given that three in five new claimants moving out of work are paid either weekly or fortnightly.
“Today’s move should signal the start of far wider reform to universal credit to make it fit for purpose, and help it deliver on its huge potential.”
Recent research by Peabody housing association estimated that the 42-day wait would result in more than 20,000 low-income families having no income this Christmas. It called for the period to be cut to two weeks.
There are concerns that design and administration changes alone will not mitigate the impact of universal credit on families. The Resolution Foundation has said cuts to the generosity of universal credit will leave 1 million working households an average of £2,800 a year worse off by 2022.
Local authority children’s services are being reduced to crisis-driven firefighting as a result of “crippling” central government funding cuts, according to a report.
Three leading children’s charities are warning that early intervention services, designed to prevent problems escalating and children suffering a crisis, have been hardest hit by budget cuts.
As a result, councils can only afford to get involved when children have already reached crisis point, which may then result in more costly interventions such as being taken into care, the charities say.
The Turning the Tide report by the Children’s Society, Action for Children and the National Children’s Bureau says council spending on early intervention services, designed to spot signs of neglect and abuse, fell by 40% between 2010/11 and 2015/16.
The £2.4bn government funding cuts come at a time of growing demand for children’s services, with a 108% increase in child protection investigations, according to the report.
The report also claimed that the poorest children have been the hardest hit, with the most deprived councils in England cutting spending on children’s services by almost a quarter (23%), six times as much as the least deprived councils.
Sir Tony Hawkhead, the chief executive of Action for Children, said: “Leaving local authorities without the necessary resources to help children and families at an early stage has a devastating cost, both in social and financial terms.
“With no long-term solution on the table, children’s services are on an unstable and dangerous footing. We’re calling on the government to prioritise the services children need before this crisis turns into a catastrophe for the next generation of children and families.”
Among the early intervention services affected by the cuts are parenting classes, children’s and youth centres, substance misuse prevention, teenage pregnancy support and short breaks for disabled children.
Matthew Reed, the chief executive of the Children’s Society, added: “Councils are being denied the funding they need to provide safe, effective children’s services and spending on vital support is collapsing as a result.
“We are at a tipping point, with more cuts yet to come. The government must step up and give councils the funds they need to protect our children.”
A government spokesperson said: “Councils have a duty to provide appropriate care for the children in their area, including responding to referrals.
“We are supporting them to deliver efficient services by investing £200m in the children’s social care innovation programme – this includes projects providing targeted support for children in need.”
No gas boilers have been repaired since April under a government scheme intended to combat fuel poverty, as a result of spending cuts that risk leaving poorer Britons unprotected from the cold at home, according to a fuel poverty pressure group.
National Energy Action (NEA), which obtained the figures from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), said the drop in official support via the energy company obligation (ECO) threatens the health of low-income households. Peter Smith, NEA’s director of policy, said: “This leaves thousands of people with existing medical conditions facing a winter without any effective space heating or hot water.”
Consumers fund the ECO through their energy bills, but its annual budget has been cut from £800m to £640m as part of government attempts to reduce bills. The scheme’s spending has been concentrated on replacing a small number of faulty boilers, rather than repairing them.
But the number of replacement boilers being installed through the ECO programme has fallen from a high of 85,000 in 2013 to a low of 7,000 between April and June this year. No gas boilers have been repaired since April.
Temperatures in Britain were expected to drop below freezing on Sunday night as autumn turns to winter, with forecasters predicting that a cold spell could last for several weeks. A scattering of snow was reported in Cumbria on Sunday, the first in the UK this winter, with snowfall expected on higher ground in Scotland on Monday.
Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, said the decline in funding for vulnerable households was causing unnecessary hardship. “Sadly I know all too well this is bound to have very negative consequences in my constituency, causing needless winter deaths and acute suffering.”
The lack of support for repairing and replacing boilers has been raised several times in parliament recently, but NEA accused the government of failing to recognise the severity of the problem. NEA said its research showed engineers and local authorities were making daily contact with people who had had their gas appliances condemned but could not afford to fix them because of a lack of official support.
The charity estimated that over the past four years more than £5bn of public money has been spent treating health problems caused by cold homes. It argues that funds should be spent making vulnerable households warmer and more efficient.
At the recent launch of the government’s clean growth strategy, ministers committed to continuing the ECO scheme until 2028. But it is unclear how much funding it will receive.
A spokesman for BEIS defended its policy, saying: “Government action is decreasing the fuel poverty gap and we made a long-term commitment to continue funding the ECO programme at current levels as part of the clean growth strategy.
“We’re replacing boilers rather than repairing them, with 13,000 installed between April and August alone, and funds available for thousands more. Overall, the ECO scheme is on track to upgrade the energy efficiency of well over 200,000 homes in 2017.”
Chris Bielby, the chair of the charity Gas Safety Trust, which aims to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, shares the NEA’s concerns. “We know the tragic and fatal consequences of not being able to afford to service, repair or replace unsafe gas heating appliances, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society.
“It can put households or nearby neighbours at risk as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning or potentially, in extreme circumstances, cause fires or gas explosions,” Bielby warned.
The problem could inadvertently be exacerbated by the rollout of smart meters, which send readings direct to energy suppliers and are being offered to every home by the end of 2020, NEA said. Engineers fitting the meters are obliged to turn off unsafe gas appliances they find during their visits.
Industry is urging ministers to take action in the autumn budget to help address the lack of funding for vulnerable households to fix their boilers.
Mike Foster, the chief executive of the Energy and Utilities Alliance, which represents boiler manufacturers, said: “The upcoming budget must address this worrying gap in support.”
The interventions came after the energy regulator, Ofgem, warned last month that it was concerned some consumers were rationing their use of gas in response to higher energy prices.
My wife tried to kill herself in March. She took an overdose – while I was watching TV in the next room. Cue, in short succession: 30 minutes of heart-stopping panic, a nerve-jangling ambulance trip to A&E, an admission to a secure mental health unit, and a longer stay recovering in a crisis house.
Acute episodes such as this can be a recurring reality for someone with a longstanding mental health condition. From her battles with depression and struggles to get out of bed in the mornings, to anxiety so overpowering that a trip on a bus triggers a blind panic, for my wife (let’s call her Bea) life is a titanic battle to stay afloat. She experiences overwhelming feelings of worthlessness, guilt and impulsive urges to self-harm that can flood her mind and distort her thinking. Socialising with friends is hard, while work in the past year has been out of the question. But she’s also incredibly smart, funny, kind and brave.
Mental health is complex, but something simple triggered Bea’s overdose: a devastating letter from a “decision-maker” at the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), informing her that her claim for personal independence payment, a disability benefit, had been unsuccessful. She’s not the first, and won’t be the last, to experience the dismissive treatment that people with severe mental health conditions can undergo when accessing the benefits system. And PIP, as the benefit is called, is one of the worst offenders.
PIP is supposed to offset some of the extra costs of a disability. Applicants are evaluated by health workers from the private firms Atos or Capita, who forward their assessments to a DWP decision-maker – who scores you on “daily living” and “mobility” (you need at least eight points for each to qualify). Currently nearly 3 million people claim some element of PIP, and my wife expected to be one of them. As did her benefits adviser, an NHS psychiatrist and a psychologist. So, armed with a dossier of supporting medical documentation, Bea applied. That was last November. I’ve seen glaciers move faster.
The thing about accompanying someone to a PIP assessment when you have your own disability is that you’re in danger of stealing their thunder. I have cystic fibrosis, I’m undergoing a lung transplant assessment, and I’m on oxygen 24/7. Bea has a hidden disease and most people aren’t trained to recognise the signs of her inner turmoil. Which means the receptionist is staring expectantly at me, oxygen cylinder strapped to my back, rather than my wife as we approach.
The good news about my wife’s assessor is that she didn’t ask Bea why her suicide attempts hadn’t been successful – a tactic that, shockingly, several applicants have claimed their own interviewers used. The bad news was that she displayed a frostiness to put the Snow Queen to shame. Bea’s acute distress during questioning – her body rigid, lips trembling, eyes welling up – was coldly met with impatience and irritation.
Imagine admitting to a series of deeply embarrassing difficulties that you battle with on a daily basis. How, for example, venturing outside on to a bustling high street feels akin to an artillery bombardment, a barrage to your senses. Or how, on some days, your body feels so leaden and heavy you can’t even raise yourself to sit up in bed. You’d hope that they would take those difficulties seriously.
The biggest shock for Bea wasn’t that her overall PIP application was rejected, but rather the manner of that rejection: being told that her claim had been unsuccessful because, in the assessor’s opinion, she was functioning perfectly normally at the assessment – thus scoring zero points, with the pages of supporting medical evidence overlooked.
This letter struck to the very core of Bea’s difficulties. “I’ve been rejected,” she said flatly. First came disbelief, then anger, and finally a tsunami of shame. She stumbled to the bathroom and locked herself in. She went catatonic, lying on the bathroom floor in a stupor, occasionally jerking back to reality with ragged gasps of panic.
Perhaps if they had read these medical notes they might have seen how, along with a severe and complex anxiety disorder, my wife’s mental health diagnosis features a particular vulnerability towards “rejection” and “abandonment”. But in their dash to get through her case and on to the next, they did not see it – or even worse, they ignored it.
There’s nothing quite like witnessing your wife tumble through a gaping chasm, to see that there’s something rotten at the heart of a welfare assessment system. From what we experienced, the wrong people are doing the wrong assessments with the wrong tools, using incorrect assumptions. And it left me reeling: how could this happen to my wife? I discovered that her experience is just the calamitous tip of a PIP-denying iceberg.While the DWP claims it doesn’t operate quotas to save money, figures released in April, covering just six months of 2016, showed an enormous expansion in claimants receiving zero points, up to 83,000. That’s only 10,000 fewer than in the previous 12 months.
This raises huge concerns about the assessment process – especially given that, when rejected by the DWP, 65% of applicants who appeal to a tribunal get the ruling reversed. A panel of welfare experts told the work and pensions select committee earlier this year that the whole process was “inherently flawed”, with medical evidence often ignored by officials during the initial assessment.
And it gets worse. New PIP guidelines were added this year, whereby mental health claimants whose mobility is limited due to “psychological distress” are now in effect barred from gaining the mobility component. “We want to make sure we get the money to the really disabled people who need it,” George Freeman, the director of Theresa May’s policy unit, said on the subject of anxiety on BBC radio in February. Bea may not be on oxygen 24/7, as I am, but her condition – and her symptoms of acute psychological distress – can be just as disabling. Acute anxiety that leads to dissociation is a physiological response: your body shuts down.
Many MPs have concerns too: the Tory MP Peter Bone declared in a Commons debate in February that “I am fed up with seeing [constituents] who clearly should have been awarded PIP.” Bea’s outraged welfare rights adviser recalled a previous PIP rejection by letter of another client, when it was crudely stated that as the individual wasn’t rocking backwards and forwards during the assessment, there was clearly nothing wrong.
After Bea’s discharge, I found myself constantly checking on her, terrified she had taken another overdose. But one weekend when I was away, visiting my sister, it happened again. A close friend came to her aid. There’s no time for fighting the benefits system when your wife is in a psychiatric unit. When Bea was finally home once again, and felt ready, we slogged through the DWP’s internal “mandatory reconsideration” appeal stage, with help from her adviser. Here the rejection rate is 80%. Bone himself has called these reviews a complete waste of time.
After several months Bea’s appeal was looked at, and rejected out of hand. I want to thank the decision-maker who saw fit to nudge her up from a derisory zero points to an even more offensive one point. At this point it might be stating the obvious that there seems to be a PIP agenda against people with mental health difficulties, and it’s harming the most vulnerable. The government may be trumpeting how mental health needs to be invested in, but its core approach is fatally flawed. Why, for instance, is there no consideration for how anxiety disorders can be just as crippling for mobility as those requiring a walking stick?
I’ve asked Bea what she thinks. She tells me about the other people she’s met at the crisis house. How most of them are repeat visitors with an array of serious mental health conditions, and many can’t work. They’re considered ill enough by the local authorities and A&E to require supported living, but too well by the DWP to be in receipt of PIP.
She believes a lot of things could make a difference. Better-trained PIP staff would help: Bea’s assessor didn’t believe her claims, as she didn’t understand Bea’s condition. And changing some of the underlying DWP guidelines about mental illness would make a big difference, such as rolling back the recent PIP changes on mental health and the mobility component.
And of course, writing to your MP with your own experiences and difficulties: Bea had written to hers, on another government benefit called ESA, and they intervened. Our PIP complaint letter is up next. She also wanted me to write this article, despite the unwelcome attention it might bring her. I think she is very courageous.
There is another thing claimants can do: persevere. Some time after Bea’s second emphatic DWP rejection, we filed a motion to go to tribunal. Tribunals are independently assessed. They carefully read through the supporting medical notes, and they don’t have political agendas: most people who go on to appeal here win. The DWP doesn’t like to be made to look like an idiot so, lo and behold, with the full weight of a tribunal imminent, they finally had a thorough look through Bea’s case. I spoke to a DWP official on the phone who finally acknowledged my wife’s difficulties and offered an avalanche of points and an award of the daily-living component if we withdrew the appeal. I expressed my frustration at an utterly broken process. But at last Bea had her offer of PIP. That’s the difference perseverance can make.
The true measure of any civilised society is in how compassionately it treats its most vulnerable members. Judged by how PIP claimants such as Bea are being treated, ours is failing.