To respond and prepare for the challenges Welfare Reform presents, Gentoo has set up a Welfare Reform Impact Team.

The team consists of members of staff from across the Landlord, Parent and Social Investment arms of the Group.The team have produced an action plan including elements such as lobbying and influencing policy, data collection, financial inclusion, worklessness services, resource planning and communications.

Gentoo has taken a two tier approach to training staff. All housing management, repairs and maintenance and customer service staff have been trained to answer frequently asked questions about the effects Welfare Reform has on customers and the business. The Contact Centre have also been briefed and trained to respond to basic queries and to signpost customers to local offices for advice and support. In addition, a core group of staff, including income management specialists and support staff have received in-depth external training to enable them to provide advice around the impact Welfare Reform may have on households specifically.  Any queries taken and advice given is to be logged and later analysed via the Group’s Customer Relationship Management system. An internal communications plan has been put in place, with the aim of informing all staff about the impacts Welfare Reform has on both customers and the business. The intranet, regular briefings and internal newsletters will be used to regularly communicate key messages.

Gentoo are currently undertaking a pilot in the South area of Sunderland, where an under-occupation officer has been appointed for an initial period of three months to complete face-to-face visits to individual households to assess levels of under-occupation. So far, the pilot has found that customers are aware of Welfare Reform, but unaware how and to what extent they would individually be affected. Only a third of those affected stated that they would be prepared to move. However they cited numerous issues such as removal costs, school catchment areas, disabilities and area preference. A full analysis of this pilot will be available in early summer.

To increase awareness around Welfare Reform a customer communications plan has been put in place. The first stage of communications aims to inform and support customers about how Welfare Reform (in particular under occupancy) may affect them. Gentoo has produced fact sheets, leaflets and POS for offices encouraging customers to speak to a member of staff if they are worried. All material directs customers to a dedicated Welfare Reform section on the Group’s website.  In addition, all customers will receive a piece of direct mail around under occupancy and how they may be affected. Gentoo is encouraging customers to let them know if their circumstances change so they can provide the right advice and support.

If customers are under-occupying, on housing benefit and would like to move they can bid for properties via Choice Based Lettings.  Alternatively, they can sign up to Gentoo’s Mutual Exchange Service which will enable them to exchange homes with other customers. Gentoo will also offer financial advice and support to those who are affected, utilising current partnerships with AgeUK and Fiscus.

Currently the focus of customer communications is specifically on under-occupation. There are further plans to focus on issues such as universal credit direct payments, to give the right level of financial support to customers and minimise arrears.

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