Assessment of how much Universal Credit will cost councils to administer cannot be made immediately, the chair of the LGA has said.
Sir Merrick Cockell, left, told MPs that an immediate assessment under the new burdens doctrine - used to calculate funding needed when councils take on new responsibilities - was not appropriate for Universal Credit which is to be implemented over several years.
“Part of the problem is the cost will only be clear as the process is going through”, he said. “The new burdens doctrine should kick in here, [but] what we don’t want is a decision to be taken now on what that might mean and that be the end of the story.”
Cost implications must be worked out over the implementation period rather than a figure be plucked out and allocated under new burdens
Instead, the department and local government needed to “evaluate the real impact as we go along”, he told the work and pensions select committee.
“It has got to be evolving and the cost implications must be worked out over the implementation period rather than a figure be plucked out and allocated under new burdens.”
The question of costs and funding is one of a number of items being discussed by the LGA and the Department for Work & Pensions as preparations are made to roll out Universal Credit from October 2013.
While DWP initially said there would be no role for local government in delivering the new single benefit, the department has since relented and selected four pathfinder councils to test the benefit computer system and 12 pilot councils to trial support for claimants.
However, the DWP has remained silent over the question of funding for councils’ role in providing face to face support for claimants, despite requests from the LGA for a memorandum to be issued.
Sir Merrick also told MPs of the long running discussion over whether council revenue and benefit staff should become DWP employees, a move which local government has called for while DWP has argued against.
“It seems rather perverse to lose people with those skills [needed to implement Universal Credit] and go through the cost of redundancies when people should at least be given the chance to move across to the new system,” he said.
Despite ongoing debates over certain aspects of Universal Credit implementation, Sir Merrick said the historically “tense” and “strained” relationship between DWP and local government had improved during the period of planning for Universal Credit.
“There have been real changes in DWP’s approach and a realisation that unless local authorities and their partners are there it is not going to work,” he said.
However, MPs were told by both Sir Merrick and Unison’s national officer for local government and housing, Pete Challis, that joint working had to go wider than the pathfinder and pilot councils identified.
Sir Merrick said: “The message to DWP is the more you work closely with us, not just at the beginning but through the next years, the more chance this will work.
“The rest of local government [not involved in pilots] will try to learn from that, but DWP must look very closely at the responses coming through and be prepared to adapt and be prepared to provide assistance to local authorities.”
Pete Challis, Unison’s national officer for local government and housing, called on DWP to establish an “integrated model” for delivery in each and every council, not just in the pilot and pathfinder areas.
“There are 400 local authorities and Universal Credit if going to come in on day one affecting all of those 400 local authorities,” he said.
Asked by MPs what the biggest risk to the project was, he said: “The whole thing is being designed without having put in place in every local authority the arrangements for what happens when people cannot get answers to the legitimate questions that will arise as they are trying to make their claim. We need to have an integrated model.”
Council tax benefit
MPs also quizzed Sir Merrick and Islington LBC leader Catherine West (Lab) about the long running argument with ministers over changes to council tax benefit and, in particular, the government’s refusal to allow councils complete discretion over who should receive support.
Stephen Lloyd MP (Lib Dem) could not understand why the LGA’s “rational” arguments had not been accepted by government and Sir Merrick was repeatedly asked to explain why ministers insisted on protecting discounts for pensioners and people living alone.
After attempting to hand the question over to Cllr West, as “someone from another party”, Sir Merrick told the committee the government had “got boxed in in the early stages by fears that particular groups would be targeted by local government - that there would be a ‘granny tax’.”