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Unbanked residents at risk of arrears with Universal Credit

07 March 2014  |  3080 views  |  2

The government says it will be able to make universal credit payments into a Post Office card account. Photograph: David Sillitoe for the GuardianThe government remains committed to paying the new "universal credit" – a combination of six income-related benefits – directly into bank accounts. This will be a problem for the 13% of housing association residents, and 15% of council residents, who do not have a bank account.

Innovations such as jam jar accounts, run by credit unions, have been much lauded, but where they have been offered take up has been low with many complaining about the complexity and costs involved. Prepaid cards have also been touted as an alternative to a bank account, yet these also come with additional costs the landlord or tenant must incur.

The government says it will be able to make universal credit payments into a Post Office card account or by a PayPoint simple payment card for those without bank accounts. However, landlords and banks could still do more to encourage residents to open basic bank accounts (including those offered by credit unions), and help residents set up direct debits and standing orders.

Some landlords are ahead of the game. They are taking on intermediary roles in which staff are verifying identities and addresses to help open new basic bank accounts for residents. Landlords can also promote basic banking products and refer residents to specific providers or products which they feel best suit their residents.

Most of the banks insist on two forms of identification (typically a benefit award letter and tenancy agreement) and can provide an account that can handle direct debits and standing orders, but no overdrafts. Some also provide balance and payment alerts as well as mobile and internet banking. However, unpaid transaction charges can range from £8 to £25.

Landlords relying on old technology are not helping themselves or their tenants. It's staggering the number of landlords still replying on slow paper mandates to set up bank accounts and direct debits. Those using paperless systems can set up instructions over the phone with residents in minutes – those without can take significantly longer.

Allowing tenants to set the date the direct debit leaves their account also boosts take-up. A straw poll of tenants surveyed by Allpay showed that 85% were more likely to set up a direct debit if they could choose the day the money came out.

Ensuring residents have multiple ways to pay (such as via a text message or through a smartphone app) will also be important as they offer residents the control they feel they have with cash and can be used to top up a direct debit. Text and email reminders have also proven to be a low-cost way to boost collection rates – by over 10% in some cases.

By providing the right support, appropriate flexibility and choice of payment options, landlords can help their residents prepare for universal credit and minimise the impact on their businesses.

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Comments: (2)

Matt Scott
Matt Scott - NCR Corporation - London | 11 March, 2014, 18:12

Maybe we should look to Italy for inspiration.  Poste Italiane is the largest Prepaid Issuer in Europe - and the vast majority of this portfolio is issued for welfare payment purposes (it's mandatory in Italy).  If it manages to work overy there surely we can look to adapt and implement a similar model here, it's not rocket science (it normally boils down to negotiation around transaction rate/fees).

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Lee Britton
Lee Britton - Prepaid Financial Services (PFS) - London | 29 May, 2014, 17:19

I agree here Matt.  The background to this is exactly as you say above, the issue of costs, which decline with the number of transactions anyway.  There have been so many positive roll outs of prepaid to pay out welfare and benefit payments globally (Post Italiane being the cream of the crop) and with UK Local Authorities who have been using prepaid cards to slash their cost of payments for Direct Care recipients.  There have been an awful lot of conversations with DWP and think tanks considering prepaid as one mechanism for payment of Universal Credit but not a great deal of momentum.

The only real cost that hurts in prepaid is ATM withdrawal.  And the real cost of that could probably be absorbed elsewhere.

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