Councillors discuss preparations for rollout of Universal Credit 'full service' in Aberdeenshire

The implications of the rollout of a 'full service' Universal Credit benefits scheme across Aberdeenshire has been discussed by councillors.

Universal Credit is a single means-tested benefit, administered by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), for people of working age who are in or out of work.

It replaces a number of former standalone benefits: income-based Jobseekers Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance, Income Support, Working Tax Credit, Child Tax Credit, and Housing Benefit.

Members of Aberdeenshire Council heard a presentation on the challenges posed by the introduction of Universal Credit Full Service and how these are being addressed at a meeting in the authority’s Woodhill House headquarters in Aberdeen on Thursday (Thu, Dec 21).

A report before councillors explained Universal Credit is paid monthly in arrears, currently with a seven-day, unpaid, waiting period at the start of new claims. In total, this means a minimum six-week wait for the first payment to be received and this can pose challenges for claimants. 

From January 2018, a number of changes will take place, including the removal of the seven-day waiting period for claimants, greater flexibility regarding advance payments, and a two-week extension for housing benefit claims for those moving across to Universal Credit.

Councillors heard how the transition from the former benefits approach to Universal Credit has led to a rise in rent arrears in other council areas, and that the council was putting measures in place to try and minimise any impact on Aberdeenshire tenants.

As well as looking at the experiences of other councils, information sessions have been taking place in partnership with the DWP. Housing officers have been issued with mobile devices to help claimant’s complete claims forms and training has been provided to staff.

In turn, the DWP is working to make Job Centres more accessible, extend phone line opening hours and introduce numbers that are free to call.

The introduction of the ‘full service’ has now begun in Aberdeenshire, and will continue to be rolled out during 2018. It is anticipated that all claimants will be using the new system by 2022.

Councillors went on to have a detailed discussion about the rollout, seeking assurances about support for those facing difficulties during the transition and particularly for those with disabilities or who require support from others to complete the claims process.

Access to crisis grants, and the pressure on council staff to deliver the rollout were also discussed and it was agreed that the council would correspond with the DWP around any concerns about the timescales for the rollout if necessary.

It was agreed that further reports should be brought back to Communities Committee as required, and that a briefing will be brought before the Kincardine and Mearns Area Committee to highlight the work that has been undertaken locally regarding the introduction of Universal Credit in that area.

It was also agreed that reports would go to other area committees as the full service rollout continues across Aberdeenshire.

Speaking after the meeting, Communities Committee chair Cllr Anne Stirling said: “The introduction of the Universal Credit ‘full service’ approach is a very complex matter, and we have acknowledged the good work services are doing to ensure we’re in the best place possible given the challenging circumstances.”

Committee vice-chair Cllr Iris Walker added: “Ongoing dialogue with our partner agencies, training and support for staff, and easy access to support for claimants will be essential to ensure the successful rollout of this approach for applicants and the Council. We look forward to further updates.”