To receive a report from the Chief Officer (Customer Access and Welfare), which includes an update on the position regarding the local roll out of universal credit.
The report of the Chief Officer Customer Access and Welfare, provided the Board with an update on work undertaken by Leeds City Council and partners to reduce poverty and improve financial inclusion, with the particular focus on the implementation and impact of Universal Credit.
The following were in attendance for this item:
o Councillor Coupar, Executive Member for Communities
o James Rogers, Director Communities and Environment
o Lee Hemsworth, Chief Officer Customer Access and Welfare
o Jo Rowlands, Financial Inclusion Manager
o Kevin Bruce, Service Manager
o Nick Hart, Deputy Head Customer Contact
o Simon Betts, DWP
o Rebecca Owens, DWP
o Dianne Lyons & Marilyn Bannister, Leeds CAB
o Nick Morgan, Chapeltown CAB
o Saleem Shafi & Sylvia Simpson, Money Buddies
o Chris Smyth, Leeds Credit Union
The Chief Officer (Customer Access & Welfare) introduced the report and delivered a PowerPoint presentation alongside the Partnership Manager (DWP), Service Manager (LCC), and the Chief Executive (Leeds CAB) which provided an overview of:
· Key statistics relating to poverty in Leeds prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, and since March 2020, with initial increase in inequalities across communities;
· COVID-19 Response including the establishment of partnerships and a snapshot of key activities including the Covid-19 Helpline, LWSS Food and Warehouse, Council Tax Hardship Payments, Leeds Credit Union Branch accessibility and Leeds Money Information Centre website;
· DWP national and local update and key changes to the service during the pandemic;
· Housing Leeds update including key statistics relating to Leeds Housing tenants moving into UC full service, the co-location arrangements with DWP to establish strong relationships, the 3 tier service Housing Leeds use to provide support to tenants during the early stages of a UC claim and an overview of the DWP Landlord portal;
· Citizens Advice Partner update including the impact of Covid-19 and the additional pressures on low income households, key data in relation to the types of enquiries with an initial rise in enquiries related to Welfare Benefits and UC. Issues in terms of financial hardship, digital exclusion, unemployment and the impact of temporary interventions coming to an end;
· Key issues that still remain in terms of the capacity to access benefits, the 5 week wait for UC payment, the need for wider support, claimants having fluctuating financial circumstances as a result of the pandemic and claimants being wrongly advised to claim for UC rather than legacy benefits.
Representatives from Money Buddies provided Members with an insight into the experience of UC claimants, particularly those impacted by Covid-19. Members heard there had been no barriers with partnership working across the city, and Money Buddies are now providing emergency debt advice. Concerns were raised in relation to mental health, the demand on services and the level of debt for clients has increased by 20% in comparison to 2019.
A representative from the Leeds Credit Union informed the Board that 4 branches across Leeds had remained open and services continued, noting a large increase in emergency welfare payments. It was noted that an online banking application had been introduced without the need for people to visit the branches.
Members’ discussed a number of matters, including:
· New claimants waiting 5 weeks for their first UC payment. Members identified issues relating to long term finances and mental health challenges. In responding, the Partnership Manager (DWP) explained that there were no proposals to reduce the waiting time. Although, payment options were in place in terms of advanced lending and 2 weekly payments instead of 4;
· Covid-19 helpline. In response to a query, Members were advised that the LWSS do not operate on weekends and although this had been trialled in November 2020, this was not a requirement. It was noted that a number of Volunteer Care Hubs remain open to operate on weekends;
· Clarity on the role of Work Coaches. Members were informed that frontline support is provided to customers upon making their claim to benefit and every customer will be allocated a work coach for the duration of their claim. Additional support is provided to individuals to explore training opportunities and to sustain support during employment;
· Covid-19 recovery. Members were informed of the support available to communities including the services provided on behalf of Money Buddies to help people form positive financial habits and the support provided with the uptake of UC;
· Clarity on UC sanctions. Members heard that temporary suspension on overpayment and deductions had now resumed, although it was confirmed that sanctions are applied in a small number of cases. Members were informed that a strict process is in place when considering referrals, and that a sanction had not been referred throughout the pandemic. Additionally, Safeguarding Senior Leaders had been appointed across the Country.
External Partners from the CAB highlighted their positive experience of partnerships across the city, whilst acknowledging the importance of lobbying Government on the changes with the £20/week uplift in UC payment ending in April 2021. Their concerns with Covid-19 recovery and the impact on health and wellbeing in the city had also been outlined.
The Executive Member for Communities, summarised by praising the partnership work in the city, and with the Local Authority. Key issues highlighted included the £20 UC payment being frozen, the 5 week wait for UC payments and long term debt issues in relation to high street lending and early re-payments. The importance of continued lobbying to Government on these changes had been reiterated.
The Chair thanked all for their attendance.
a) To note the contents of the report and verbal updates received during the meeting;
b) To note the work being undertaken to address financial inclusion and the impact of Universal Credit;
c) To continue monitoring activity in relation to this agenda.