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When everyone has a home

028 9024 5640: Housing & Debt Helpline for Northern Ireland

ADVISER: Universal Credit issues for prisoners

Our Housing Advice in Prisons services helps people in Maghaberry, Magilligan and Hydebank who are newly committed and those who are preparing for release to deal with their housing issues. One of the major issues that housing advisers who work in this service face at the moment is the way in which Universal Credit deals with the housing costs of prisoners. Confusion over this benefit can sometimes lead to vulnerable people being given incorrect advice, and without specialist intervention, such as that provided by our adviser Laura, this misinformation can have devastating consequences.

Below, Laura discusses a recent case where her client faced losing his home and the threat of legal costs as a result of misinformation.

I first became aware of Theo because his housing association contacted Housing Rights to see if we could get in touch with him now that he was in custody. The housing officer explained that no housing costs had been paid in respect of Theo’s tenancy since his Housing Benefit claim ended and that arrears were mounting. 

Advised incorrectly to claim Universal Credit

When I met with Theo, I asked him to tell me as much as he could about his tenancy and his benefits claims. Two months before being remanded, Theo had taken up a new tenancy after a significant period living in a homeless hostel. He had been receiving Housing Benefit in the hostel. Theo said that there had been a lot of talk about changes to benefits amongst other residents in the hostel, so he went to his local jobs and benefits office to explain that he had now moved and needed his housing benefit transferred to his new address. Theo said that he’d received conflicting information from the people he spoke to, with ESA staff telling him he could remain on his existing benefits and staff in the local jobs and benefits office advising that he had to claim Universal Credit.

Confused, Theo made a claim for Universal Credit, and provided details about his new tenancy in order to claim housing costs assistance. Theo thought he’d completed the claim properly, but said he’d never actually met his work coach. After speaking with Universal Credit, it became clear that Theo’s UC claim had been closed as he hadn’t turned up to his scheduled appointment.

Incorrect advice leads to threatened homelessness

By the time I met with Theo, his housing association was very concerned about the level of arrears on the account and suggested that Theo may need to consider terminating the tenancy in order to avoid running up legal fees associated with court action to end his tenancy. However, if Theo hadn’t been advised incorrectly, he’d have been entitled to Housing Benefit for a 52-week period as a person on remand, and I wanted to do everything possible to ensure he’d have a home to return to on his release.

I made submissions to the Housing Executive’s Housing Benefit department to the effect that Theo had been unfairly penalised as a result of misinformation from Social Security Agency staff and faced losing his tenancy as a result, pointing out that Theo would have been entitled to continue claiming Housing Benefit if his change of address had been dealt with as it should have been. The Housing Executive accepted that Theo’s Housing Benefit claim should be reinstated and issued two backdated payments which cleared the arrears. The Housing Association was happy to halt possession proceedings. Theo has since been released from custody, due to the length of time he served on remand, and is happy to be back at home.

Helping prisoners to avoid homelessness on release is more difficult now that Universal Credit has been introduced. As prisoners are prevented from making a new claim for Universal Credit, help with housing costs can only be paid if the prisoner was already getting this assistance either through Universal Credit or Housing Benefit on the date they were taken into custody.

Tagged In

Benefits, Welfare Reform, Adviser

This article was written on 4 March 2019. It should not be relied on as a statement of the current law or policy position. For help with housing issues please contact our helpline on 028 9024 5640 or use our online chat service at www.housingadviceNI.org.