6. Suggested improvements
Improving awareness and understanding of Scottish choices
- There was a clear belief across all interviewees for this research that Scottish choices could be better publicised.
- Suggestions for improving this focused on a) improving the content and nature of notices about Scottish choices within people's Universal Credit online accounts and b) employing other communication methods instead of, or in addition to, the online Journal, to ensure that claimants are fully aware of their options.
- Awareness and understanding were considerably lower among private landlords than among social landlords. One suggestion for improving this was to include information about Scottish choices when landlords register or re-register with the Scottish Landlord Register.
Improving the operation of Scottish choices
- Other problems or frustrations with Scottish choices were rarely a reflection of the principle of the policy, but rather how it had been implemented in practice. Suggestions for improving this included:
- Allowing everyone to apply for Scottish choices from the start of their claim, rather than requiring them to wait until the start of the second assessment period
- Improving the payment system for direct payments - although this is already in hand, there was a desire to ensure this also enabled people to align payment dates with the date rent was due
- Making payments fortnightly rather than twice a month.
- There was strong support for the principle of enabling people to opt for split payments within a household, both out of respect for individual dignity and autonomy, and to prevent financial abuse.
- Other flexibilities people suggested might be helpful included: weekly payments (in addition to the twice-monthly or fortnightly option), and an option to have Council Tax paid directly.
Suggestions relating to Universal Credit more widely
- Although not the focus of this research, participants spontaneously mentioned various improvements to the Universal Credit system that they felt would significantly improve people's lives.
This final chapter summarises the suggestions of people on Universal Credit, landlords and key informants for improving Scottish choices. Many of these suggestions have been touched on in previous chapters. They are grouped under three main headings:
- Suggestions for improving awareness and understanding of Scottish choices
- Suggestions for improving the precise way in which the choices operate in practice
- Suggestions for additional flexibilities that might support people on Universal Credit to manage their money more easily.
Improving awareness and understanding of Scottish choices
How could claimant awareness and understanding be improved?
As discussed in Chapter 2, levels of awareness and understanding of the Scottish choices options varied considerably across the 45 people on Universal Credit interviewed for this study. There was a clear belief among both claimants and key informants that it could be better publicised. Specific suggestions from those on Universal Credit as to how this could be achieved included:
- Improvements to the way Scottish choices are communicated in people's online Universal Credit accounts, specifically:
- Enabling people to access information about Scottish choices from the main menu, not just in the notifications
- Including more detailed description of what the choices are and how they work in practice - addressing specific issues claimants reported finding confusing, discussed in Chapter 2. Given the number of areas where claimants and/or key informants and landlords reported potential for confusion, there may be a need for a set of FAQs to explain how each option works for people in different circumstances.
- Ensuring that the Scottish choices notification in a claimant's online Journal is highlighted regularly, rather than only at the start of the second notification period. This was also suggested by key informants and social landlords. It was noted that people's circumstances change regularly, so while Scottish choices might not suit them at the start of their Universal Credit claim, they may be helpful later on.
- Providing a clearer reminder of which Scottish choices they have selected and how and when these will be paid (including dates that payments of rent will reach landlords).
- Less exclusive reliance on the online Journal to convey information about Scottish choices to eligible claimants. As discussed in Chapter 2, it was suggested that information provision around Scottish choices needs to take more account of the needs of those who cannot use their online account for various reasons. But even for those who were using their Universal Credit account, there was a perception that journal notifications do not really "shout at you" and are easy to miss. There was a strong desire among claimants for Journal notifications to be supplemented by letters and/or emails explaining their Scottish choices options, and by Work Coaches consistently talking claimants through Scottish choices early in their claim. It was also suggested that they could be advertised more widely, through TV campaigns, information in tenant newsletters, or posters in health centres, for example.
How could landlord awareness and understanding of Scottish choices be improved?
As discussed in Chapter 5, compared with private landlords, social landlords had much higher levels of awareness and understanding of Scottish choices. Most suggestions about improving landlord awareness therefore focused on raising awareness among private landlords. One suggestion was that information about Scottish choices could be provided when they are required to register or re-register with the Landlord Register. There was a perception that levels of awareness may be particularly low among landlords who own properties in other parts of the UK, and who may be less familiar with the differences in how systems operate in Scotland.
As noted above, although social landlords generally felt they had a good understanding of what Scottish choices are and how they work, there was a desire for clearer information to be passed to landlords about which tenants had opted for Scottish choices, and when they choose to end Direct Payment to Landlord arrangements. While landlords understood that there were issues around confidentiality and data sharing, they felt that having this information would enable them to better target support to tenants who may be at risk of entering arrears (for example, because they have just cancelled a Direct Payment to Landlord arrangement, and have a history of missing rent payments).
Improving the way in which Scottish choices operate in practice
As discussed in previous chapters, where interviewees had problems or frustrations with Scottish choices, this was rarely a reflection of the principle of the policy, but rather how it had been implemented in practice - something which largely rests with the DWP rather than the Scottish Government. Their suggestions for improvements reflected this point, focusing on specific changes to how it has been operationalised.
Suggestions relating to both options
Beyond raising awareness and improving understanding, the main suggestion for improving Scottish choices in general - made by people on Universal Credit, landlords and key informants - was to allow people to take up both options from the start of their claim, rather than making them wait until after the first assessment period. There was a strong view that the impact of Scottish choices in helping people avoid arrears and debt would be enhanced if they were available from the outset.
Suggestions relating to Direct Payments to Landlords
The main suggestion for improving the Direct Payments option from both people on Universal Credit and landlords was to amend the payment system so that people do not fall into technical arrears. As noted, this is in the process of being addressed by the new payment system being rolled out by the DWP, although interviewees were still unclear whether this would mean payments aligned with the date rent was due and wanted to be able to change the date direct payments were made if it did not.
As discussed in Chapter 5, some private landlords indicated that they would like direct payments to be mandatory rather than optional.
Suggestions relating to More Frequent Payments
The main suggestion mentioned by people on Universal Credit for improving this option was to make payments fortnightly instead of twice monthly, so that the payment dates would be both fixed and evenly spaced. This was seen as easier both in terms of knowing how long your money had to last and being able to set direct debits up to come out shortly after the second payment.
Suggestions for additional flexibilities
As discussed in Chapter 1, the Scotland Act 2016 enables the Scottish Government to introduce specific flexibilities to the way Universal Credit is paid in Scotland. In addition to the two current Scottish choices options, on which this report has focused, the Scottish Government is currently working on a 'split payment' option. This would allow Universal Credit payments to be split between two people in the same household (at the moment, payments are made to one claimant, but cover the household as a whole).
There was strong support among the people on Universal Credit interviewed for this research for the idea of split payments. Some identified ways in which split payments would have benefited them personally - for example, one couple said split payments would be "amazing", both in terms of giving each of them financial independence and dignity (the partner who was not receiving payments described feeling they were being "kept" at the moment), and reducing administrative hassle (at present, the person who received payments was regularly having to transfer money to their partner for shopping). However, even when people did not think they would affect them directly (either because they lived alone, or because they were in a couple but did not have any problems sharing their finances), they felt that such arrangements could be beneficial for others, particularly if there was a domestic abuse issue and one partner was exerting financial control over the other. There was a strong feeling that, as a matter of principle, each individual should have their own income and should not need to ask their partner for money or to feel "beholden" to them in some way.
Where landlords and key informants expressed a view on split payments, they were also supportive in principle, although they felt they might prove very complex to implement in practice.
Other suggestions for additional flexibilities included:
- Offering a weekly payment option, in addition to twice monthly (or fortnightly) - one view from a claimant was that it is more common to budget weekly rather than fortnightly, so this option would be more useful to people
- Creating an option for direct payment of Council Tax which is offered to everyone as part of Scottish choices (this was also suggested by a claimant).
Suggestions relating to Universal Credit more widely
Finally, although it falls outwith the remit of the Scottish Government, it must be noted that people on Universal Credit, landlords and key informants interviewed for this study all spontaneously mentioned other improvements to the Universal Credit system that they felt would make a significant difference to the lives of those on this benefit. Raising the level of payments, removing the Minimum Income Floor, ending the five-week wait for a first payment, abolishing or reviewing the sanction system, improving communications - both written and in person - with claimants in general, were all mentioned spontaneously by claimants as areas for improvement that would make a significant difference to their experience of Universal Credit. This view was mirrored by key informants working for organisations that supported people on Universal Credit. While Scottish choices were generally viewed favourably, their impact was seen as limited when set against the wider backdrop of perceived problems with the Universal Credit system.
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