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Welfare pilots shortlist unveiled

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Fifteen areas have been shortlisted to pilot support for claimants of the government’s new single universal credit benefit, it has been announced.

Welfare reform minister Lord Freud unveiled the councils in the running during a speech to councillors and local government officers attending a welfare reform conference on Friday.

The councils, whittled down from 38 applications by the LGA following discussions with Lord Freud, will now enter talks with the Department for Work & Pensions before a dozen are selected later this summer to run the pilots from this Autumn.

The 15 areas include two consortiums, one in London and one in north Yorkshire, and are as follows:

  • Barnet LBC
  • Bath & North East Somerset Council
  • Birmingham City Council
  • Hammersmith & Fulham LBC, in consortium with Wandsworth LBC and triborough partners Kensington & Chelsea RBC and Westminster City Council
  • Leeds City Council
  • Lewisham LBC
  • Melton BC
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme BC
  • North Dorset DC
  • Oldham MBC
  • Oxford City Council
  • Rushcliffe BC
  • North Yorkshire consortium led by Scarborough BC
  • West Lindsey DC
  • Wigan MBC

The successful dozen will be tasked with testing face-to-face and online support to claimants in the 12 months between Autumn this year and the start of the national roll out of universal credit in October 2013.

DWP said the pilots would focus on helping claimants with budgeting as they make the switch from multiple benefits, including housing benefit which is often paid direct to landlords, to a single benefit which will be paid monthly.

Councils piloting support are also expected to assist with job searches, reducing fraud and error, and reducing homelessness. DWP has previously stated it is “keen to see diverse models emerging where the local authority is not the key delivery agency”.

Lord Freud said: “Local authority led pilots will provide a unique opportunity for councils to shape the development of universal credit.

“All the recommended local authorities offer very exciting ideas on how they might help people with their claims… and progress into work.”

There are widespread concerns about the implementation of universal credit, particularly the DWP’s belief that the vast majority of people will claim online and worries that the monthly payment of housing benefit to tenants rather than landlords will result in rent arrears and increased homelessness.

DWP had originally said councils would have no involvement in delivery of the credit, but it agreed to involve authorities in support for claimants following lobbying by the LGA.

LGA chairman Sir Merrick Cockell said councils would play “an important role in working towards a smoother rollout later next year”.

“Councils have a central role to play in providing face to face assistance and advice in the new welfare system, as they have a strong understanding of local job markets and the needs of their residents,” he said.

When DWP and the LGA formally invited pilot applications in April, it was made clear the pilots were “voluntary”, and would not be classed as a new burden. This means they won’t qualify for funding based on a formal assessment.

Instead, DWP said it would “reimburse additional costs that an authority incurs in running the pilots”, such as staff, evaluation, estates changes, communications. A breakdown of costs had to be supplied in applications and is set to be paid in arrears.

Funding and piloting activity will formally end in September 2013, the prospectus said, although “local authorities and their partners may decide to leave the arrangements in place”.

The 12 successful pilot areas join four ‘pathfinder’ councils in the north-west - Tameside, Oldham, Wigan and Warrington MBCs - who were selected in May to run the Universal Credit system for six months ahead of the national roll out in October 2013.

Philippa Roe (Con), leader of Westminster City Council, said she was “delighted” to be one of the 15 areas shortlisted. 

“As four central London boroughs the City of Westminster, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, and the London Borough of Wandsworth share many opportunities and challenges.  We are all engines of economic growth yet have significant areas of deprivation.

“We’re excited by the opportunity to work with the DWP and the LGA to make sure that the introduction of universal credit in central London improves lives and saves money.”   

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