09/01/2018 08:23 GMT | Updated 09/01/2018 08:23 GMT

A Risky Business – Why The Government Must Go Further On Universal Credit

Families turning to foodbanks. MPs left in tears by tales of those struggling - the Government has started to sit up and take notice

David Goddard via Getty Images

Desperate families turning to foodbanks. MPs left in tears by tales of those struggling to manage. Rent arrears building.

That has been the story of Universal Credit over the past few months in our newspapers and on our TV screens. It is little wonder then that it has become such a political hot potato.

The Residential Landlords Association has been warning about the potential impact of Universal Credit for years, with first-hand experience of a system that has left many tenants with little option but to fall into rent arrears.

The Government has now, it seems, started to sit up and take notice.

Scrapping the seven-day waiting period for applications and allowing tenants with direct payment arrangements under housing benefit to continue them under Universal Credit – both announced in the Autumn Budget - are a step in the right direction.

But ministers need to urgently address the other problems which ultimately deter landlords from renting out their homes to these tenants.

It is, unfortunately, an irrefutable fact that taking on Universal Credit tenants is a risk.

According to our most recent research, in the last year alone more than one in three landlords, a total of 38%, saw their Universal Credit tenants fail to pay their rent and start to fall into arrears.

We know that in many cases this is not the fault of the tenant, but of a badly implemented policy.

Currently, if Universal Credit tenants leave a home where they owe rent there is no mechanism for the landlord to recover the money owed to them via the benefit system. They simply have to write it off.

This is not fair, and against a backdrop of draconian tax changes and the pressures of increased regulation and licensing, it is a risk fewer and fewer landlords are willing to take.

In fact, only 13% of landlords we questioned were willing to let properties to tenants on Universal Credit as it stands.

We are already in the midst of a housing crisis, with families struggling to find affordable homes across the country and social housing unable to cope with demand. Universal Credit is exacerbating the crisis. We need this to change.

We need the Government to build on its welcome reforms so far and help to give landlords the confidence to rent out properties to Universal Credit claimants before the crisis deepens further.

We have a number of proposals which we believe could make a real difference to both Universal Credit tenants and landlords alike.

These includes ensuring landlords are routinely informed when a tenant moves from the older benefit system to Universal Credit. Unlike social landlords, private landlords are kept in the dark, and as a result are unable to work with tenants to establish suitable rent payment schedules.

Mechanisms need to be put in place to give landlords confidence that rent arrears can be reclaimed after a Universal Credit tenant leaves a property. This would fit well with the Government’s mantra that the Credit is, in part, about promoting financial responsibility.

Tenants should also be given the option to choose to have the housing element of Universal Credit paid directly to the landlord, if they wish. 63% of landlords said a lack of direct payments made them less likely to rent to Universal Credit tenants. In any event, where advance payments are made to tenants the housing element should be paid to the landlord.

Today MPs will debate the effect of Universal Credit on the private rented sector in a debate at Westminster Hall. It provides an important opportunity to get past the politics and show how all the parties, working with landlords and tenants can secure the benefit system we all want – one that is easy to understand, fair to all, supports the vulnerable and ensures the security of a home for all claimants.

Chris Town is Vice Chair of the Residential Landlords Association. It tweets @RLA_News