Implementation of welfare reform by local authorities - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents


2  Departmental co-operation

6.  The changes to welfare are being implemented against a backdrop of the Government's localism reforms, reductions in local authority funding as well as a number of other reforms affecting local authorities' responsibilities for health, schools and policing. The wide-ranging and important changes to the welfare system have been developed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG). DCLG explained that DWP was the lead department on welfare reform except for localised Council Tax Support¯and told us that DWP was working across government with local authorities, the Local Government Association and third sector voluntary groups to implement the reforms.[10] Some of our witnesses said that the central departments were not working as well together as they should.[11] The Welfare Reform Club, a group of welfare reform consultants, considered that:

There is a lot of liaison taking place, and a clear recognition of the need for close working between the DWP and DCLG. However, the two departments inevitably have different perspectives. The main difference focuses on central versus local service delivery.[12]

Another concern was that the roles of the departments were not completely clear. Citizens Advice told us:

As regards Universal Credit, the DWP is clearly the lead Department, but as the role of local authorities in UC delivery is not yet clear, neither is that of the DCLG.[13]

7.  Durham County Council told us that there is "clearly some dialogue" between DWP and DCLG but said that guidance from DWP on taking Universal Credit (UC) into account in the design of local Council Tax Support schemes had been relatively late in arriving.[14] It welcomed the recent establishment of a "local government reference group for [DWP's UC] implementation task group" and added that "more of this type of engagement would be helpful".[15] The District Councils' Network told us that:

All too often a dialogue with the departments will be focused upon individual projects or strands of projects which gives the impression that no one has an overall sight upon the objective or impact. We remain concerned that this could ultimately lead to a false economy for the tax payer as the system becomes increasingly fragmented and results in increasing debt, cash flow or administrative costs.[16]

Waverley Borough Council said that, because the central departments, DWP, DCLG and the Treasury, did not share a list of key contacts for welfare reform implementation at local level "consistent information is not sent to local authorities" and information that did come through about UC "often by-passes members and senior staff because a standard contact address book doesn't exist".[17] The Chartered Institute of Finance and Accountancy added that it would be important for DCLG and DWP to work closely with the Department of Health as "welfare reform will have a major impact on vulnerable people who are often the prime focus of both social care and the NHS".[18]

8.  Looking at the changes as a whole the Welfare Reform Club said that, although the changes needed to be made by local authorities to implement welfare reform "could well be a bigger task than the central departments are currently planning for, particularly in the early days", it believed that:

the implementation challenges can be overcome, through the full co-operation and commitment of central government departments, local authorities and other local stakeholders. The implementation challenges should not derail a fundamental reform of the benefit system that is long overdue.[19]

We share the Welfare Reform Club's assessment. It is not only important for central Departments to co-operate on policy and implementation but for them to work together to provide support to local authorities. The changes to welfare clearly require close co-operation between DWP and DCLG. We welcome the steps already taken by central departments to work together on welfare reforms. There may be scope to improve the arrangements—small steps such as a single contact list shared between departments can aid communication and avoid confusion. We urge the Departments responsible for implementing the changes to test their systems, in co-operation with local authorities, and to make any improvements quickly. Departments must not underestimate the tasks they are asking of local government and they must also be ready, if necessary, to provide additional support, particularly when the changes are being implemented.

Guidance from central Government

9.  There was criticism from several witnesses about the quality of guidance from central Government. Waverley Borough Council, for example described detailed guidance as "patchy".[20] The timeliness of guidance from central Departments was also criticised. East Riding of Yorkshire Council said that the lateness of some guidance posed problems for local authorities:

Local authorities have very long lead in times to ensure reports go through their own democratic processes, and when guidance is issued in late November, for example, for a scheme that has to be agreed by the full council by the end of January, this leaves very little room for authorities to make changes in any schemes put forward. This could potentially impact on the cost of schemes to the local authority.[21]

Citizens Advice told us that:

Little or no specific guidance has been provided around [Council Tax Support], beyond the criteria for the recently-announced transitional funding. (The default scheme is not intended as guidance). Our impression is that the DWP sees this as a matter for the DCLG; while the DCLG sees it as a matter for [local authorities].[22]

In response, DCLG told us in December that it had provided local authorities with "guidance and communication materials" on the changes including the Benefit Cap and local Council Tax Support. It said that "additional guidance is planned for issue prior to Universal Credit implementation from April 2013" including Housing Benefit/Council Tax Benefit General Information Bulletins. The Department told us that it also arranged presentations and events working with groups such as the Institute of Revenue Ratings and Valuation.[23]

10.  The changes devolve considerable discretion to local authorities to develop their own arrangements. It follows that they will need time to do so. It therefore causes us concern to be told that local authorities may not have sufficient information to understand the changes and develop their own schemes, in particular, for delivering local Council Tax Support and replacements for the Social Fund. East Riding of Yorkshire Council told us that local authorities were having to "attend many paid events to ensure that they maintain a thorough knowledge of the raft of changes forthcoming, at a time when authorities can least afford the cost and the resource to do so".[24]

11.  Under the welfare changes, it will be for local authorities to make decisions about how they operate local schemes. They cannot, however, draw up their schemes in a vacuum. There are still areas where information is required and DCLG and DWP must provide local authorities with the information needed in good time ahead of the start of each phase of the changes to enable authorities to make informed local decisions and to understand the changes that will affect their local residents.

Timescale for change

12.  We deal with the concerns about the timetable for specific programmes later in our report. Here, we examine whether there is a case for delaying the over-arching timetable of implementation of the welfare reforms by local authorities. Several witnesses said the timetable was very "challenging"[25] but "achievable"[26]. Lesley Pigott, from Camden Council, said that in "general local authorities have an excellent track record of delivering these kind of changes. The problems we are facing at the moment are the amount of change and the volume that is facing us".[27] Blackpool Council said that:

Local authorities are faced with implementing numerous changes for example; localising Council Tax support, Social Fund, and changes to Local Housing Allowance. It is the volume of these changes and additional work associated with implementing them that is a problematic and unrealistic expectation from government.[28]

Blackpool Council was among a number of witnesses that called for implementation of some or all aspects of the reforms to be delayed, arguing that "the speed of reform will have a greater impact on customers" and that "more time would enable better preparation and communication of changes to customers".[29] However, other witnesses advised against delay pointing out that all the publicity currently available (particularly related to changes on 1 April 2013) gave a clear indication of when changes would be happening and that announcing changes to the timing of already announced programmes itself caused confusion and additional costs for local authorities. Thanet District Council told us that:

The implementation plans for Universal Credit are already being diluted on a regular basis. From a starting point of "all claims from unemployed people will go onto Universal Credit from October 2013" we are now in a position where we are being told that very little will change for Local Councils in 2013/14.[30]

We note that Blackpool Council itself said that changes were already being made to staffing in its housing department and that any delay to UC could mean that it would not have enough staff to continue dealing with Housing Benefit, which is currently administered by local authorities.[31]

13.  Implementation of the welfare reforms will run from 1 April 2013 to 2017. The changes coming in on 1 April are those to Council Tax Support, local Social Fund replacements and the introduction of the Benefit Cap and the Social Sector Size Criteria. New claims will be migrated into UC in four pilot areas from 1 April 2013 with the national rollout starting from October 2013. All existing claims will be migrated between then and 2017.

14.  DCLG told us that "the timetable for implementation spans a number of years to allow sufficient time for preparation by local authorities and claimants".[32] In reference to UC and Personal Independence Payments it said that, the programme had "been carefully designed to avoid a big-bang approach and will be extended gradually to different claimant groups over several years".[33]

15.  Changes, including those to Universal Credit are being rolled out nationally over an extended period and we agree with DCLG that this should assist local authorities implementing the changes. Local authorities need certainty about the timetable for delivering the changes to welfare. We see no pressing need for a postponement of the main changes. To ensure that the extended implementation period gives maximum benefit to local authorities, the Government needs to make sure that all guidance that it plans to produce is published well in advance of future implementation dates. The late production of guidance on the reforms starting on 1 April has affected local authority consultation plans and, in some instances, may have increased their costs because of the need to make late changes.

PUBLIC AWARENESS

16.  Due to the scale of the changes and their importance to individual claimants, it will be vital for their implementation that individuals as well as local authorities, housing associations and advice charities are fully aware of the changes and how they will be affected. We heard some concerns that public awareness and awareness among people who will be directly affected was still limited. Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council said that residents did not understand the changes despite a "series of home visits, contact letters and publicity campaigns".[34] Cllr Graham Chapman from Nottingham City Council said that:

the most important issue is communication. Most of my constituents still do not have a clue what Universal Credit is. They do not have a clue, so they do not know what will be hitting them. They do not understand the expectations about going online, and they do not understand that they will be paid retrospectively. They do not understand yet that their housing benefit will go into the Universal Credit system and they will have to pay it. It is the human side that I think will be a problem.[35]

17.  Kevin Dodd, Chief Executive of Wakefield District Housing, commented on the extent of publicity on a national level. He said that there had been "more publicity on digital switchover to make sure the nation did not lose any episodes of Coronation Street than for the changes to welfare reform".[36]

18.  The level of awareness and understanding among benefit claimants about the changes to welfare will inevitably have some impact on the effectiveness of implementation. Ensuring that recipients are aware of the changes in their local area is best done by local authorities as they have the local knowledge to enable them to do it efficiently. There is however, a role for central Government in highlighting the scale and importance of the changes. The Government should be encouraging broader awareness and advising claimants to contact their local authority to find out more through advertising and in information relating to Universal Credit.


10   Ev 89, para 1 Back

11   Ev 63 [Thanet District Council], Ev w39 para 1 [East Riding of Yorkshire Council] Back

12   Ev 70, para 17 Back

13   Ev 80, para 2.1 Back

14   Ev w10, para 14 Back

15   As above Back

16   Ev w37 Back

17   Ev 119, para 1 and 2 Back

18   Ev w24, para 3.3.a Back

19   Ev 69-70 para 14 Back

20   Ev 119 Back

21   Ev w39, para 2 Back

22   Ev 81 Back

23   Ev 91, para 12 Back

24   Ev w39, para 2 Back

25   Ev w28, para 3.3 [Southwark Council], Ev w10 para 18 [Durham County Council] Back

26   Ev 71 [The Welfare Reform Club], Ev 60 para 3.3 [London Borough of Camden] Back

27   Q 62 Back

28   Ev 60 Back

29   Ev 66 Back

30   Ev 64 Back

31   Ev 66 Back

32   Ev 91, para 19 Back

33   Ev 92, para 23 Back

34   Ev w72, para 3.6.1 Back

35   Q 63 Back

36   Q 139 Back


 
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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 3 April 2013