Housing associations (“HA) and local housing authorities (“LHA”) have been preparing for the impact of the benefit changes in the Welfare Reform Act 2012 (“the Act”) for some time. Below are my suggestions:-
Training is important. How many officers know what their employers’ policies are? Following policy would avoid some of the problems that arose in Southwark LBC v Hyacienth [22 December 2011 Lambeth County Court]. An officer may not have the time or the inclination to read and understand a raft of policies-so key fact policy documents should be available.
Tenants do not always update their landlords (even though they should) when there is a change to their household. Perhaps now is the time for an across the board exercise for a landlord requesting updating information from all tenants? If rent arrears accrue because of the benefit issues brought by the Act I anticipate courts will continue to be sympathetic to the suggestion that benefit administration issues have been compounded by the Act’s changes. This could lead to further adjournments. Therefore if it is shown a tenant had not responded to the request for updating information in advance of the Act it may counteract the “benefit of the doubt” reason often dispensed at a hearing.
There should be a review of sign up procedures for new tenants as these tenants are the ones that will be receiving Universal Credit in the first instance. Even if sign ups are undertaken by inexperienced officers there should be a checklist that is completed and not left blank. There should be a follow up appointment made with the tenant within the first 3 to 6 months of occupancy. Again a record of this should be kept, that can be used in court if necessary.
A provider has always had to have a communication strategy that reaches its tenants. Communication channels will have to be, initially, more extensive. Providers with street properties will not be able to place information notices in communal areas of dwellings. Instead notices in local schools and GP surgeries asking tenants to make an appointment, pick up an information leaflet or look at the landlord’s website could be used. It will be necessary to keep a record of how the communication channels were utilised- this way a tenant stating “I did not know so it is not my fault”, can be counteracted.
A review of the information sharing agreement between a HA and local authority regarding benefits could be undertaken. Tenants are often permitted the indulgence at court by claiming there is a benefit issue without any proof. Housing officers could overcome this problem by asking for a benefit update from the tenant and showing the response at the initial possession hearing.
There should be a review of the notices for the grounds for possession. Notices need to comply with the statutory requirements under the Housing Acts. More care needs to be taken with these notices as it is not a mere “cut and paste” exercise.
There could be a review of policy to see whether the mandatory Ground 8 of Schedule 2 of the Housing Act 1988 can be used with the discretionary Grounds of 10 and 11. For many HA who acquired properties as part of a stock transfer a Ground 8 route is not possible so the “front loading” of information to build a comprehensive Ground 10 or 11 argument needs care.
If the tenancy agreement permits, use Ground 12 (breach of any obligation) in conjunction with Grounds 10 and 11, where a tenant repeatedly fails to provide the information requested. HA’s have huge responsibilities to fulfill already so tenants (in line with the thinking behind the Act) also need to take responsibility.
If Ground 8 or a notice under s.21 of the Housing Act 1988 are used the reasons for agreeing to a suspension (which arises in practice) need to be considered. If a suspension is agreed after a possession order it will be harder to argue that there can be no further suspension because of the ground relied on, i.e. a mandatory ground. Mandatory grounds for possession are there for a reason, so do not lessen their impact.
When a possession order is enforced if the housing officer is not going to make a witness statement for a hearing, they should take the file to court so the information is available. It is not enough to merely take a rent account showing the arrears increase as they need to demonstrate what has occurred.