Campaigns team gathers front-line evidence
Gathering research from clients to better inform the campaigning work across the Citizens Advice national network is one the primary functions of the service. The Citizens Advice Westminster’s policy and campaigns team (pictured below) has been working across a number of projects so that the Westminster bureau can contribute to the national picture.
Working alongside other Citizens Advice research and campaigns colleagues in London, the team has been examining what proportion of Universal Credit (UC) clients who use Citizens Advice Westminster’s Help to Claim project require additional support with their claim after their initial application. The aim is to determine how easily claimants are able to manage their UC claim and what additional information and support they need. This research will then be used to influence and improve local and national policies and practices in relation to UC. The most common issues experienced byclients were:
● Habitual Residency Test
● Limited Capability for Work element and assessments
● Online Journal Access
● Poor administration
● Understanding Universal Credit
● Incorrect Calculation
Shirley Springer, Citizens Advice Westminster’s Chief Executive Officer, says: “We are starting to see the full impact of UC as we have a large influx of people claiming UC for the first time, as a result of the current Covid-19 crisis. We are also moving to the second stage of the UC roll-out which began in Westminster in June 2018. Now that decisions on the initial tranche of new claims have been made, any issues concerning these decisions, and any misadministration concerning new payments, are now revealing themselves.
“To get a better idea about the types of UC issues clients are facing, the team are in the process of collating a set of client case studies. This will help highlight the most common issues claimants in Westminster are facing, the impact of these issues, and whether these issues are being sufficiently resolved.
“We will keep a close eye on the local situation and may look into how clients progressed when they have raised issues or appealed. In particular, we will be keeping an eye how those without enough to live on are now faring. “
Clients unsure about “claimant commitment”
The majority of claimants need to accept a ‘claimant commitment’ as a condition of their entitlement to the benefit. This sets out a claimant’s responsibilities, including actions they must carry out, in order to receive their UC payment. Failure to carry out the required actions may lead to the claimant receiving a reduced UC award, known as a sanction, unless they can give an acceptable justification explaining why they have not complied with the requirements expected of them.
Recent research by Citizens Advice Westminster has found many clients surveyed did not understand some or all of their claimant commitment. More than half of respondents said that they didn’t know that they could request to alter it.
CEO Shirley Springer hopes that more support will be made available for vulnerable clients in order to decrease the risk of sanctions. “This could be done by our Help to Claim advisers gaining confirmation from clients that they have an understanding of the requirements upon them. If they are unable to understand due to mental ill health or learning difficulties, then a complex needs analysis should be undertaken.”
The private rental sector and, in particular, the issues for single people under 35 years of age, is the subject of a research and campaigns team housing project There is a shortage of the type of properties appropriate for this group and those that are available are extremely expensive. The project is investigating the Intermediate Renting Schemes, housing associations and ‘affordable’ housing stock, including those developers who set a high minimum income for tenants.
The team is also examining the problem of evictions from both private and social housing in preparation for the future legislative changes to ban section 21 “no fault” evictions which are one of the leading causes of homelessness.
Access to discounted water schemes
The 2016 case challenging Southwark Council’s water charging arrangements for Thames Water highlighted the problem housing association tenants were facing as a result of water charges being included in their rental, which prevented them from accessing discounted water schemes. Over the last year, Citizens Advice Westminster has been contacting these associations and Westminster Council to encourage them to make discounted water schemes easier to access for their clients.
In January, Brenda Smith, research and campaigns coordinator, met Thames Water to ask for more information about how they assist customers in financial difficulty. In particular she wanted to know more about how they proposed to help tenants who are billed for their water by their landlord along with their rent. At this really useful meeting, Thames Water explained its Priority Services Register, assisted tariffs and grant making bodies. Their representative also outlined their plans to introduce direct and individual billing for social tenants which would make access to discounted tariffs easier for them.
The good news is that since 1 April Westminster Council is now billing social housing residents directly so water costs no longer appear on their rental bill and the discounts are now more accessible and much easier to apply for.
When news broke about this move, Thames Water received over 1,600 applications for WaterSure Plus on one day (about 10 times the normal volume). Extra resources were being provided to work through the multiple applications and the company said it would be keeping an eye on any problems arising from these high volumes.
If anyone is having difficulty in paying their water bill they can apply for WaterSure Plus. For more information about this scheme visit: https://www.thameswater.co.uk/-/media/Site-Content/Thames-Water/Your-Account/Billing-and-Payment/Help-paying-bill/Water-sure-plus/WaterSure-Plus-application-form.pdf