Susan Borrow, Care and Support Manager (contracts) at Thirteen, reflects on Thirteen’s experiences since the roll out of Universal Credit, the measures we’ve put in place and investments we’ve made to ensure tenants have been able to manage their claims and maintain their tenancies.
Universal Credit (UC) has been with us in the Tees Valley for a few years now. Hartlepool was the first of our local authority areas to move onto the new benefit, and we’ve since helped thousands of our customers through the process of claiming UC for the first time.
A key element of the move from legacy benefits to UC was that housing costs would be paid direct to customers as part of one monthly payment, rather than direct to landlords – which posed a financial risk to social landlords.
Our data tells us that 10,332 of our current customers have transitioned to UC; 2,926 in Hartlepool, 3,358 in Middlesbrough, 3,372 in Stockton and 676 in other areas.
To start with, the average rent arrears increase being incurred by each of our customers transitioning to UC was £200. Since we’ve had a team in place, customers average rent arrears confirmed on the UC claim date decrease by approximately £53 by the UC payment date.
Since April 2019, our UC Team has:
- Supported 6516 customers with new and existing UC claims
- Helped customers access over £2.8million in UC and £1.1 million in other benefits
- Secured £57,000 in grants for customers
So how have we achieved this?
Along with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), councils and housing providers across the North East, we went straight into learning mode, forming working groups to share information and experiences, all working together and giving our customers the best support we could.
We also organised the region’s first UC conferences in 2018 for other housing associations, local authorities and other agencies to share our learnings. These were attended by more than 300 staff from 80 organisations.
We found that providing the right support for people claiming UC was essential to make sure things worked for customers, with some really positive outcomes. We did come across issues in the early days; claiming was complicated, many people found the online application hard to fill in, it was taking longer than expected for customers to get their payments and, since everyone’s personal situations are different, claims would bring up issues we hadn’t seen before. Customers were also naturally worried about how they would manage with the wait for the first payment.
We learned from the roll-out in Hartlepool that having the right support was the biggest factor in making UC work for people. So, in advance of Stockton and Middlesbrough moving to the full digital UC service in 2018, we recruited a team of 16 colleagues dedicated to working with customers from the time they made their claim to the time their first payment came in.
With backgrounds in benefits, rents and money advice and expertise in Universal Credit, the team helped nearly 3,000 customers in their first year. The team provides a one-to-one support package to customers as they newly transition onto UC, and also helps existing claimants if they have a change in circumstances.
A key element of this is managing and responding to rent verifications via the Government portal and making sure we contact customers to offer support as a preventative measure. The support we offer is tailored to the individual because we know one size doesn’t fit all.
We help customers get their claim right so that they’re getting everything they’re entitled to, and empower them so that they fully understand the UC process and payment arrangements. As well as supporting customers from their initial claim date through to payment date, the team also offers advice with issues around historical benefits, helping make sure they’re getting all of the other benefits they might be entitled to, as well as any grant funding they might be eligible for. Any customers needing UC support after their first payment date can access further help through our Money Advice Team.
We also look at options to help customers get by during the wait for their first payment, and work with lots of other agencies and charities to make sure people can eat, heat their homes and support them to manage on an often really limited budget.
Pre-pandemic, the team was co-located in every Jobcentre Plus in the Tees Valley, working directly with the DWP to make sure claims were processed correctly. When the first Covid-19 lockdown was announced in March 2020, colleagues began working from home. We had the technology, the right kit and lots of wellbeing support in place to allow them to do this safely while maintaining a continuity of service for customers. We’re so very proud of the way the whole team embraced this when going into completely unknown territory.
Help doesn’t just stop once the first payment is made, either. Thirteen invests heavily in all kinds of support to provide a comprehensive, wrap around service. Once the UC team has done its part, customers can still get help from our money advice officers, more intensive, floating support is available if they need it, and all of our customers have access to support with jobs and training from our employability service.
In recent months, we’ve really focused on improving the overall experience for customers by introducing an online appointment booking system, along with extended availability and operating hours. We’ve utilised Voicescape to contact customers and the appointment booking is managed by our touchpoint call centre colleagues. This has given us a 92% success rate in customer contact and brought efficiencies in the UC team, giving them more time to spend speaking to customers, rather than making repeat calls to try and make appointments.
Looking forward, the next stage in the roll-out of UC is managed migration, when other customers will receive their notice of legacy benefits ending and the need to claim UC instead. While this has been suspended due to the pandemic, we will absolutely make sure that the customers who need support receive it from us when the time comes.
We’re also developing a toolkit of resources that will be available to empower our communities. The aim is that as well as providing our one-to-one support, the toolkit will help local people become more confident and skilled at managing their finances.
People are very resilient in lots of ways, and let’s face it, we’ve all had to be especially so over the last ten months, but we’ve found that this doesn’t always translate into financial resilience. We really want this toolkit to work for customers to help them feel more in control and feel empowered to manage not just their tenancies more confidently, but other areas of their finances too.