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Universal credit pathfinders in devolution call

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Two Greater Manchester authorities that piloted the government’s universal credit regime are calling for greater control over key parts of the revamped welfare state.

Wigan and Oldham MBCs have told LGC they want greater control over the running of Jobcentre Plus and the administration of benefits.

Proposals include the power to lift sanctions attached to the credit, which is due to replace six benefits with a single monthly payment nationwide from next year, and a new “duty to co-operate” on branches of Jobcentre Plus.

LGC understands the proposals could form part of a future devolution bid from the Greater Manchester Combined Authority.

Emma Alexander, Oldham’s executive director of commercial services, said: “Just imagine if we were running Jobcentre Plus in Greater Manchester as part of the devolution agenda? The benefits could be huge…It could make a real difference.”

Alison McKenzine-Folan, director of customer transformation at Wigan MBC, suggested councils would be better placed than the Department for Work & Pensions to hold decision-making powers in relation to some elements of universal credit, such as the lifting of sanctions and the administration of housing benefit.

She said: “Incorporating housing costs in [universal credit] is proving problematic. The DWP do not have the links with landlords, they don’t have the skills, knowledge or local information to calculate the [housing benefit] element of [universal credit] correctly.”

When universal credit is introduced in an area, the local authority and the DWP sign a contract which outlines the role each will play.

Ms McKenzie-Folan said these agreements provided an opportunity to be “more radical” and redesign the way services are delivered, bringing jobcentre and local authority staff together.

Local authorities in London have already submitted proposals to “radically” redesign and integrate Jobcentre Plus with local authority teams as part of the capital’s devolution bid.

The County Councils Network also proposed merging Jobcentre Plus with council services in its plan for government 2015-20.

A spokesman for the DWP told LGC there were “no plans at this time” to devolve the delivery of universal credit or Jobcentre Plus to local authorities.

Writing exclusively for LGC this week, the DWP’s minister for welfare reform Lord Freud said pathfinder councils had been “indispensable” to the roll out of universal credit and the department would continue to listen to local authorities in designing the next phase.

Meanwhile, the issue over whether 27,000 benefits staff will transfer from councils to central government as part of the roll-out of universal credit rumbles on.

If workers are not transferred using transfer of undertakings, protection of employment (Tupe) conditions, councils face the prospect of having to foot large redundancy bills and costs associated with renegotiating or cancelling contracts with outsourced providers.

The DWP spokesman said no decisions had been taken and added “discussions are still ongoing”.

*See here for LGC’s Guide to Universal Credit and to read Lord Freud’s article in full

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