“there was more publicity on digital switchover to make sure the nation did not lose any episodes of Coronation Street than for the changes to welfare reform”

As I read through the (excellent) select committee report on the impact on local authorities of the implementation of the welfare reforms last night, it was the above observation from Kevin Dodd, Chief Executive of Wakefield District Housing that really caught my attention.

Central government has argued that in partnership with local authorities, they have done their best to communicate the changes through letters, leaflets and posters, but there certainly hasn’t been the kind of ‘smack you over the head’ advertising campaign that we sometimes get treated to, for example around the time of the annual deadline for submitting tax returns or, as Kevin points out, for the digital switchover.

And this is a far more complex and important change. So complex in fact, that despite having spent the last six months generating summary slides and briefing notes to explain the different changes and the impact, I’m only just starting to get my head fully around it (although luckily Antonia did a much better job than me here).  These changes have an enormous impact across the board– I particularly enjoyed MP Helen Goodman’s attempt to bring this to life by living on £18 for a week and broadcasting it on youtube. (The transcript of her speech to parliament on the experiment is well worth a read).

More worrying however is an apparent failure of central government to recognise the support that the demographic impacted by these changes needs to understand changes of this scale. The national average reading age is less than 12 years old. The numeracy levels in this country are amongst the worst in Europe. The recipients of these benefits speak over 100 different languages – many with very limited English. General education levels among those affected will be undeniably low. Even worse, many of the recipients will be highly vulnerable adults with mild to severe learning difficulties.

In recent work I’ve done with citizens advice services, I’ve witnessed it sometimes take a patient, highly trained advisor two, or even three hour long sessions with an individual to help them understand one letter about housing benefit (the same letter they’ve been receiving for many years). In a city council where I recently did a customer access project, significant volumes of face to face contact were being generated by residents simply not understanding their council tax letters because of the long words and complicated phrasing.

Given the confusion over the new council tax benefit system (even within those implementing it), the misunderstandings over enforcement of housing payments (even from those collecting them) and the fact that many people who have never had to pay council tax in their lives before will now be required to do so, the major impact of poor communication will show itself in reduced income levels through failure to pay. You might think that in the current economic context, that alone would be enough to spark a desire to help claimants really grasp the change.

But from my experiences in customer services and advice services, my real concern lies with the customers. Setting judgement on the reforms themselves to one side completely – to be in a position where all of your sources of income, your entitlement to your home, and your legal responsibility for paying bills has changed would be scary for anyone. To be in that position and face the confusion, inability to understand and fear of what is changing, potentially with dependents  and with limited support available to help you to get to a place where you do understand must be terrifying.

It cannot be the responsibility of local authorities, who are facing extreme financial cuts of their own, to launch all singing all dancing advertising campaigns to solve this problem and I agree wholeheartedly with the conclusion reached in the select committee report below. To make it effective however, the first step is for central Government to show it really understands the specific customers of these changes and the best way to communicate with them.

“There is however, a role for central Government in highlighting the scale and importance of the changes. The Government should be encouraging broader awareness and advising claimants to contact their local authority to find out more through advertising and in information relating to Universal Credit”


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