Martin Armstrong: Benefits change is universally unfair to those who struggle

Martin Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Wheatley Group
Martin Armstrong, Chief Executive of the Wheatley Group
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Universal Credit (UC) was introduced to replace six means-tested benefits and tax credits. It was the single biggest overhaul of the welfare system in living memory and was billed as an empowering, streamlined revamp that would make work pay.

But it has left thousands of ­vulnerable people and families not just worse off, but confused and ­distressed as they struggle to cope with the ­every-day demands of life.

The reality is that in Scotland’s largest city, despite the efforts of governments and public agencies, including housing associations, ­deprivation and disadvantage still blights too many people and communities.

Nearly six years ago, I met Iain ­Duncan Smith MP, the chief ­architect of Universal Credit, in the House of Commons. Along with the then chair of Glasgow Housing Association, Gordon Sloan, we asked the former Secretary of State for Work and ­Pensions to think again about many aspects of UC.

A front-page headline in the Evening Times the following day reported on our efforts and our description of the proposed ­welfare reform as “cruel and unfair”. Nothing that has happened since then has changed my mind about its impact.

It’s not just that the household incomes of many vulnerable ­people have been cut, but also that the payment of benefits to which they are entitled is at the start unfairly delayed.

How can any politician ­justify the five-week wait people have to endure after signing up for UC for the first payment to be made? The people who rely on income ­support simply don’t have the savings to ­manage.

I remember vividly one tenant ­telling me how she spent days in bed because she simply couldn’t afford to heat her home or eat.

Wheatley social landlords are doing their best to mitigate the worst effects of UC. A suite of free wraparound services has been developed to ­support tenants affected.

This ­ranges from delivering food through our Eat Well programme to offering new and recycled furniture through our Home Comforts service.

Specialist staff also ­provide fuel and ­benefits advice and we have helped hundreds of ­tenants and their families into employment, training and further education.

Many of these essential activities are overseen and funded by the ­Wheatley Foundation, which helped more than 10,000 people across ­Scotland last year and will spend more than £5 million this year ­supporting ­vulnerable families and communities and ­tackling poverty and social and financial exclusion.

Tackling digital exclusion is ­another priority. Too many people still don’t have the confidence or opportunity to develop digital skills. Given that you need to go online to make a UC claim in the first place, that presents ­something of a challenge for many of our disadvantaged tenants. Our network of 36 Click&Connect online learning centres, set up and run with Glasgow Kelvin College in the west and public-sector partners in the east, is addressing this by ­offering free training and online access.

Wheatley’s housing officers are also playing their part. With patch sizes of just 200 houses – amongst the smallest in the UK – and using office-in-your-hand technology, they’re out and about in their communities, building strong relationships and helping tenants go online.

Another major issue that UC poses for tenants and housing associations is that rent for people on benefit is no longer paid directly to their landlord. For many vulnerable tenants, who don’t have budgeting experience, this presents a serious challenge and has led, generally across the UK, to a sharp escalation in rent arrears.

This is not just a business issue for ­landlords in terms of ­revenue and income flow, but for tenants who risk losing the roof over their heads.

It is small consolation, when I think back to meeting with Iain ­Duncan Smith at Westminster, that he agreed to delay bringing Universal Credit to Glasgow until now, ­giving the city more time to prepare.

The hard reality is that, despite the efforts of bodies like the Scottish ­Government, City Council and Wheatley, Universal ­Credit is another cause for concern, another unfair burden for ­thousands of people in Glasgow and beyond at the sharp end of disadvantage.

Martin Armstrong, chief ­executive, Wheatley.