Councils look set to have a central role in the government’s welfare reform plans and the rollout of universal credit.
Welfare reform minister Lord Freud told councillors and officers they were “right at the heart of our thinking” as he announced the shortlist of councils in the frame to pilot face-to-face support for claimants.
The Department for Work & Pensions has always said councils’ long-term role would only be decided once the pilots were completed next Autumn. But Lord Freud told an LGA conference on welfare reform that councils appeared to be the “natural intermediary” with claimants.
At the same conference, a senior civil servant revealed DWP was set to ask all councils – not just those involved in the piloting programmes – to assess the impact of universal credit across all services.
As Lord Freud announced a shortlist of 15 councils in the running to become one of a dozen pilots – see online for a full list – he said local government was central to DWP planning of face-to-face support for those claimants who are not able to fulfil the government’s “digital by default” agenda.
“We are looking very hard at how to get face-to-face to people and it is looking to me as if the local authorities are the natural intermediary,” Lord Freud said. “I don’t think they are the only intermediary however, and exactly how we design getting that support is something that we’re doing a lot of work on, but local authorities are right at the heart as we design how we do that. They are right at the heart of our thinking.”
Whilst work with councils has so far been limited to the pilot applicants, and four ‘pathfinder’ councils in the north-west, Lord Freud said DWP wanted “all councils interested in this agenda” to be involved and would possibly create a network for information sharing.
The wider local government sector is also to be drawn into the universal credit reforms as DWP asks all councils to assess its impact on them.
Huw Meredith, DWP’s local authority liaison for the Universal Credit programme, said a “business change impact analysis” would be carried out from this summer, with the department “asking all local authorities to look at what is the impact across the board of universal credit on their current structures, staffing, resourcing, ways of working and potentially into their supply chain organisations and so on”.
He added: “We have probably focused a lot, to date, on the revenues and benefits aspects of it, the funding finances and systems sides of things. I think there is a challenge for us to look more widely at what are the broader range of services that local authority services are delivering and look at the knock on effects of universal credit on those.”