Carl Brown, Deputy News Editor at Inside Housing posted a tweet the other day which caught my attention. He headlined a linked article – “More whinging from social landlords about UC – this time from associations in pathfinder areas!

I’m surprised at how little reaction there has been to the provocative statement. One responder (Tom Murtha) suggested “whinging” was a bit OTT to which Carl responded – “Feels over the top – boils down to not being able to get through to someone at DWP instantly”.

I’m generally a follower of Carl’s tweets as I find them usually informative and helpful but I have to disagree with his take on the situation, In this instance.

Contrastingly, I take my hat off to Peter Fitzhenry, Golden Gates Trust and Tony Powell New Charter Housing Trust for flagging up, what are clearly early warning signs of yet more DWP unpreparedness, incompetence and highlighting experiences which could very well become the norm when Universal Credit is rolled out nationally. How could they possibly remain silent about such bread and butter issues?

Only a couple of weeks ago, the National Audit Office heavily criticised the DWP’s handling of Universal Credit

“The Department’s plans for Universal Credit were driven by an ambitious timescale, and this led to the adoption of a systems development approach new to the Department. The relatively high risk trajectory was not, however, matched by an appropriate management approach. Instead, the programme suffered from weak management, ineffective control and poor governance. Universal Credit could well go on to achieve considerable benefits if the Department learns from these early setbacks and puts realistic plans and strong discipline in place for its future roll-out.” Amyas Morse, Head of the National Audit Office, 5 September 2013.

History has shown us the DWP has a poor track record on delivering social security schemes and rarely learns from its mistakes. Anyone in any doubt should look no further than the rollout of Local Housing Allowance in April 2008. DWP spent two years preparing, through regional pilots, for its introduction, which included the default position of paying the tenant direct. Within three years it was forced to submit to a Work & Pensions Committee Westminster Inquiry and a range of changes to the scheme.

Why? Because the system wasn’t working; around 30% of tenants had failed to hand over more than 8 weeks rent to their respective Private Landlords. The DWP was forced to introduce a range of easements to its “Safeguarding” provisions permitting councils to redirect payment to the landlords in these delinquent cases. I gave written and oral evidence to the Inquiry on behalf of the Scottish Association of Landlords and focused on the lengthy delays being experienced, at the point of the initial claim, and the damage this was causing to Landlords’ cash-flow. The Work & Pensions Committee later adopted my suggestion that all first payments (over £100) should be paid directly to the landlord to safeguard both the tenant & landlord interests; not to mention those of the public purse.

I also wrote an article for SFHA “Hitting the DWP brick Wall” highlighting some of the problems with the LHA administration and how these very same problems could equally apply to Universal Credit. The article was published in September 2011 and included –

I found myself recently becoming totally frustrated by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). Worryingly, I believe my experiences could well become the norm for housing association and Co-op staff trying to assist tenants in the future with the “housing element” of Universal Credit, which is to be administered by the DWP rather than local councils.

I ended the article by stating – “Whilst all of these issues are worrying, the “elephant in the room” could well be the transfer of function to the DWP. If this happens, how will tenants and landlords alike be expected to effectively represent their and the tenants interests to a DWP administration that is remote and seemingly disinterested in assisting, paralysed by the worry of the DPA and the potential disclosure of “confidential” information?

We’re currently patiently awaiting the results of the “Demonstration Projects” to find out exactly how the “Payment Exception” scheme will operate for all landlords. I sincerely hope the RSL directors participating in the pilots will be no less vocal than the so called “whingers” and will do their utmost to unearth the truth of what exactly happened in the pilots because as the NAO put it – “DWP doesn’t do bad news” and the December 2012 reports, relating to the pilots, were initially less than frank and honest, and it was only after one or two of Housing Associations broke rank, did we get a truer picture of what was happening – i.e. rent arrears worryingly mounting despite the resources being flung at the pilots!!!!