Benefit changes could leave claimants at risk of criminal exploitation, Crime Commissioner warns

South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner has spoken of his concerns that the Government’s controversial Universal Credit benefits system could leave those in poverty exposed to exploitation by criminals.

Monday, 27th May 2019, 9:44 am
Updated Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 11:51 am
Dr Alan Billings

Dr Alan Billings has warned that Universal Credit leaves some claimants in a “highly vulnerable” position and prey to unscrupulous criminals who can offer ‘help’ as a way to put people in debt to them, leaving little option but “to do all sorts of things”.

He spoke after a damning report commissioned for the United Nations blamed cuts made to public services since austerity kicked in during 2010 as having “tragic consequences”.

Prof Philip Alston concluded the country’s benefits safety net had been deliberately removed, with an uncaring ethos now dictating policy, findings the Government has strongly refuted, pointing to the £95bn spent on the welfare state and pensions.

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Prof Alson said: "The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

His findings have been echoed by a recent report to the Children’s Commissioner, which suggested that almost half of low income families will be adversely affected by the change to Universal Credit, losing an average of several thousand pounds a year.

Dr Billings has knowledge of poverty in South Yorkshire and and measures being taken outside the state system to try to alleviate the worst consequences.

He has recently visited a project by the Baptist church in Doncaster, to equip a house which could accommodate three otherwise homeless people.

They also operate a food bank in the town and Dr Billings said Universal Credit was “causing them real concerns, as people don’t get money up front so they are waiting as much as five weeks to get paid.

“You have a really toxic mix of people not getting money when they need it, then getting a lot of money and the danger is they go through it rather quickly.

“These are situations where people may be tempted to do things they should not do, to feed their children.

“I think there is a link there between that form of benefit.

“That is not to say everyone on Universal Credit is in the least bit a criminal.

“You can see it puts people in an appalling position where they have to feed their children and pay the rent.

“They become highly vulnerable then.

“The moment they get into debt they are highly vulnerable to people who offer to pay their debts; they are in hock to them and they demand all sorts of things.

“You can see the links between criminality and poverty,” he said.

Problems raised in Doncaster were that Universal Credit recipients were given all the money to pay their bills, rather than costs like rent being paid directly.

“They have to budget and manage for themselves and many struggle with that,” said Dr Billings.

Universal Credit is the Government’s answer to modernising the benefits system, providing what is meant to be a more streamlined service to replace what has become a complex structure because of incremental changes over decades.

However, many argue that changes to the rules over claims means the practical effect is to leave many claimants worse off.

Links between crime and hardship have been long established, with former mining communities in South Yorkshire experiencing sharp rises in acquisitive crime during the 1990s, when the Government’s colliery closure programme wiped out the staple employer in many areas.