1. Background and introduction
This report presents findings from research conducted by Ipsos MORI Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Government to inform the evaluation of Universal Credit Scottish choices. This introductory chapter sets out the background to Scottish choices and this research, explains the methods used, and summarises the structure of the remainder of the report.
Background to Universal Credit Scottish choices
Universal Credit was introduced by the UK Government as part of a wide-ranging set of reforms to social security. It was first announced in 2010, and the phased roll-out of the scheme across the UK began in 2013 (roll-out is currently forecast to be complete by September 2024). Universal Credit replaced six means-tested benefits (sometimes referred to as 'legacy benefits') for working-age people with a single payment. It was originally designed to be a single monthly payment to an eligible household, paid seven days after the end of the monthly 'assessment period'.
Universal Credit entitlements are made up of different elements. A 'standard allowance' is included in all claims (but varies depending on whether the claim is for a single person or a couple), with additional elements to which people may be entitled to depending on their circumstances covering housing costs, costs associated with any children in the household, caring responsibilities, and additional payments for those assessed as having limited capability for work due to illness or disability.
Universal Credit is a UK Government scheme administered by the DWP. However, since September 2016, the Scottish Government has had the power to vary certain aspects of Universal Credit, as a result of social security powers devolved by the Scotland Act 2016. Specifically, the Scottish Government can:
- vary the amount of the housing costs element for claimants renting their home
- change the frequency of payment of Universal Credit
- change the person to whom Universal Credit is paid.
The Scottish choices scheme allows people on Universal Credit to choose to do the second and third of these - to opt for more frequent payments, received twice a month rather than monthly (referred to in this report as 'More Frequent Payments', or MFPs), and to have the housing element of their Universal Credit paid directly to their landlord (referred to in this report as 'Direct Payments to Landlord' or DPLs). These two options are referred to as Universal Credit Scottish choices.
Prior to the introduction of Scottish choices, the DWP did already allow for Alternative Payment Arrangements (APAs) - including payments direct to landlords and more regular payments. However, these APAs are intended to be the exception rather than the norm and DWP officials have the right to decide not to apply an APA, even if requested by the claimant or landlord. The Scottish choices policy extended these options to everyone on full-service Universal Credit in Scotland (full service means Universal Credit claims are made online). It is intended to give people greater flexibility about how they manage their money, and to help reduce the risk of rent arrears and debt (identified as issues in early research on Universal Credit roll-out).
Scottish choices was implemented from October 2017 for new full-service Universal Credit claims. DWP delivers Scottish choices on behalf of the Scottish Government. Those who already have an equivalent APA in place with the DWP are not eligible for Scottish choices, while those who do not receive the housing element of Universal Credit are not offered the direct payment to landlord Scottish Choice. Eligible new claimants, or eligible claimants transferring to 'full service', are offered Scottish choices via a digital notification (a 'to do' or 'Journal notification') in their online Universal Credit account. They may also request or be offered Scottish choices via other channels - for example, by phone or face-to-face. Scottish choices are offered at the start of their second assessment period - that is, around a month after their Universal Credit claim starts, after the value of their first monthly payment has been determined.
Between October 2017 and the end of March 2020 (the most recent time point for which Scottish choices management data was available at the time of writing), 168,030 people had taken up one or both Scottish choices. Among those who had taken up at least one Scottish choices option, more (77%) had taken up More Frequent Payments than had taken up Direct Payments to Landlord (40%). This is primarily because it is more common for individuals to be ineligible for the latter, either because they do not receive the housing element of Universal Credit, or because they already have an APA in place with the DWP.
Scottish choices have now been in place for three years. The Scottish Government commissioned this research to explore how they are working in practice and to inform the scheme's future development. The main aim of the research was to explore experiences of Scottish choices among both people on Universal Credit and landlords. In particular, it was intended to examine: awareness of Universal Credit Scottish choices; reasons for choosing (or not choosing) to use the flexibilities; the impact of Universal Credit Scottish choices on claimants' ability to manage household budgets; and any related impacts on rent arrears or evictions.
Overview of the research design
This report is based on interviews with people on Universal Credit, landlords, and key informants from organisations who either worked with landlords or supported people around financial and/or housing issues. Interviews were primarily qualitative in nature. Unlike quantitative research (such as surveys), qualitative research typically involves longer and more in-depth discussions with interviewees, with a more open questioning style. Qualitative research was particularly suited to the aims of this project, to understand in detail how people make decisions about, and experience Scottish choices. In addition to these qualitative interviews, the research also included a short online survey of landlords in Scotland. This was designed to provide both an indicative snapshot of landlord views of Scottish choices, and to provide a sample frame for the qualitative interviews with landlords.
The purpose of qualitative research is to ensure that interviews capture as much breadth and depth of opinion and experience as possible. As such, qualitative samples are not designed to be statistically representative, but rather to ensure a range of different people and perspectives are included.
People on Universal Credit
For this study, the sample of people on Universal Credit was recruited through two different routes. First, re-contact details from people who had participated in the Scottish Household Survey (a large, nationally representative survey conducted on behalf of the Scottish Government), and had identified that they were on Universal Credit and agreed to be re-contacted for future research were provided to the research team. The research team contacted this sample by phone and email to introduce the research, and to screen them for eligibility. Second, a number of 'gatekeeper' organisations, who work with people on Universal Credit, were approached for help in identifying and recruiting potential participants. Those identified were then contacted and screened over the phone by the Ipsos MORI research team to check their eligibility and explain the research in more detail.
In total, 45 people on Universal Credit were interviewed for this research - 31 of whom were recruited via Scottish Household Survey re-contacts, and 14 through seven gatekeeper organisations. Recruitment quotas were set to ensure variation in the sample in terms of both individual experiences of the two Scottish choices options, and demographic characteristics that might impact on the effect those choices had for them in practice. Table 1.1, below, shows the breakdown in terms of whether or not people had opted to take up either or both Scottish choices, and whether they had remained on them subsequently. The researchers deliberately oversampled those who had experience of Scottish choices, in order to explore their perceived impacts. Appendix B includes a full breakdown of the demographic profile of participants.
|Scottish choices Status (overlapping categories - so do not sum to 45 or 100%)||Number in the sample||Percentage within the sample||Proportion of all people on UC|
|Never taken up either option||18||40%||55%|
|Still on DPL||18||40%||14%|
|Still on MFP||15||33%||28%|
Landlord survey and qualitative interviews
A link to the online survey of landlords was disseminated through a variety of routes, including through the Scottish Association of Landlords bulletin, posts in the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations online forums and newsletters, an article in Housing Scotland Today, and via emails to members of the Scottish Housing Network. Local Authorities were also approached to ask if they would be willing to disseminate it to the private landlords they work with or who are registered with them through the Landlord Registration process. Overall, 260 landlords responded to the survey, including 178 private landlords, and 81 social landlords (one landlord identified themselves as 'other').
As noted above, the landlord survey was intended to provide an indicative snapshot of landlord views of Scottish choices, as well as providing a sample frame for the qualitative interviews with landlords. It was not designed to accurately represent the profile of landlords across Scotland: the lack of a publicly available and comprehensive sample frame of landlords rendered this impractical within the scope and time frame for this research. It is also worth noting that the sample of private landlords includes a large number (132 out of 178) with properties in a specific local authority. While the findings provide an indication of the views of landlords, they should not, therefore, be seen as precise estimates of landlord opinion.
Landlords who participated in the survey were asked whether they would be willing to be contacted for a further interview about their views on Scottish choices. Twenty landlords subsequently took part in in-depth telephone interviews, including 10 social landlords (six from Housing Associations, four from Local Authorities), eight private landlords, one private letting agent, and one participant who worked for a local authority but in a role that largely involved liaising with private landlords (and who therefore focused on private landlords' perspectives). Eight were small landlords (with under 20 properties in their portfolio), and 11 were large (with over 100 properties). This division largely reflected the private/social division - all the social landlords were large, and most of the private landlords were small.
Key informant interviews
In addition to interviews with people on Universal Credit and landlords, the researchers also interviewed 14 'key informants', selected for their ability to provide different perspectives on the impacts of Scottish choices. These included professionals from:
- Three national organisations representing landlords in Scotland
- Four national organisations working around housing and/or benefit issues in Scotland, and
- Seven local organisations working with people on Universal Credit and/or tenants (three of which were housing focused, and four of which focused either on money or consumer rights more generally).
Qualitative interviews with people on Universal Credit, landlords and key informants took place between May and early September 2020. Interviews were conducted over the phone, by the authors of this report. Topic guides were used to guide interviews, but these were flexed to the individual circumstances and experiences of participants (topic guides are included in Appendix C). Interviews were audio recorded (with permission from participants) for subsequent analysis. Participants who were on Universal Credit and private landlords were given £35 to thank them for giving up their time to take part.
The online survey of landlords was scripted and hosted by Ipsos MORI over a six-week period from July to mid-August. The questions asked are included in Appendix D.
Qualitative interviews were summarised into thematic matrices developed by the research team and drawing on the research questions. These thematic matrices were then reviewed to identify the full range of views and experiences on each issue. Survey data was analysed in SPSS to produce frequencies and crosstabulations by landlord type (social and private).
Challenges and limitations
All research is subject to challenges and limitations. On this project, the research team encountered a number of challenges around recruitment - in particular, younger people and people who had experience of the More Frequent Payments option proved particularly difficult to recruit. Working closely with gatekeepers (including a number who worked particularly with young people) ensured that the final sample did include 10 people under 30. However, it was very time consuming to reach this target, and ideally the sample would have included a few more in that age band (reflecting the profile of people on Universal Credit in Scotland, which is skewed towards those under 30).
Similarly, although the final sample included 17 people with experience of More Frequent Payments, ideally it would have included a few more with experience of this Scottish Choice. Those who had opted to receive more frequent payments but subsequently decided to go back to receiving their Universal Credit monthly proved particularly difficult to identify. As such, findings on reasons for reverting from this option are based on a small number of people with direct experience of this, supplemented by the views of social landlords and key informants.
A further challenge experienced during interviews was that people on Universal Credit were not always completely clear whether they had been on a Scottish choices Direct Payments to Landlord option or an APA. In most cases, it was possible to establish which was most likely through probing (for example, around whether they were able to opt out of direct payments - which is possible with Scottish choices, but not an APA). However, in a small number of cases it remained unclear which option applied, even after extensive probing. In these cases, the interviews explored the perceived impacts of having their rent paid directly to their landlord, even though it was unclear which scheme this had been arranged through.
Report structure and conventions
The remainder of this report is structured as follows:
- Chapter 2 discusses awareness and understanding of Scottish choices among people on Universal Credit
- Chapter 3 explores the decision-making process that people go through when deciding whether or not to opt for one, or both, Scottish choices and the factors that influence their decisions
- Chapter 4 examines the perceived impacts of Scottish choices for people on Universal Credit
- Chapter 5 examines the perceived impacts of Scottish choices for landlords, and
- Chapter 6 summarises suggestions for improving Scottish choices, made by both people on Universal Credit and landlords.
As already discussed, the majority of findings are based on qualitative interviews, which aim to establish the range of views and experiences rather than their prevalence. As such, as far as possible the report avoids the use of quantifying language (including terms like 'most' or 'a few').
The report also includes a number of boxed 'case studies'. Interspersed through chapters, these more detailed summaries of individual experiences are used both to illustrate key points, and to show how different issues interact to impact on the lives of people on Universal Credit. Names and some potentially identifying details have been changed to protect participant anonymity.
Interviewees are identified by a reference number (and, in the case of people on Universal Credit, some basic demographic information and which, if either, of the Scottish choices they were on), in order to preserve anonymity.
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