Universal Credit branded 'jaw-dropping failure' as thousands sink into rent arrears
The Government’s flagship benefit reforms are still pushing tens of thousands into financial crisis just weeks ahead of the second half of its introduction in Yorkshire, it can be revealed.
New analysis shows Universal Credit (UC) is leaving people in deep rent arrears, with claimants in council houses in the region having built up around one tenth of such debt across the UK.
Information uncovered by JPIMedia Investigations suggests the benefit is pushing more people into financial turmoil. JPIMedia is the parent body of The Star, Sheffield.
Figures obtained from more than 140 local authorities which still own social housing show more than 120,000 UC claimants are now in rent arrears - to the value of more than £84million.
On average, they owe £680, more than twice the average arrears of people on the old Housing Benefit system.
The Department of Work and Pensions said that it “completely disagrees” with the analysis, saying that claimants begin UC with pre-existing arrears.
But the second phase of UC - moving over three million people on “legacy benefits” - is set to begin in July with a trial in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.In Yorkshire and the Humber, data from 11 local authorities in the region shows that 15,844 are in rent arrears, to the value of £8,879,713 compared to £6,074,111 owed by almost double the number, 31,079, in arrears under Housing Benefit.
UC claimants living in Kirklees Council homes have built up the highest amount of arrears in the region at a combined £1,625,589.
Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin said: “We simply can’t go on like this.
“The Tory government must urgently stop the rollout of Universal Credit before it pushes even more people into poverty.”
She added: “Rarely a day goes by without a constituent contacting my office at their wit’s end because of Universal Credit, often unable to pay their bills or even put food on the table.”
Dewsbury MP Paula Sherriff said the figures “underline the jaw dropping failure” of UC.
She added: “More and more people are living on a knife-edge, knowing that they’re at risk of losing their homes, whilst being forced to make impossible choices between keeping up with the rent or paying for essentials like food or bills.”
Stephanie Kleynhans, policy officer at Shelter, said: “Our services are telling us quite regularly that they are seeing a lot of problems with Universal Credit that could put people at risk of rent arrears or homelessness.
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“That is down to things like the five-week wait and the administration errors.
“That can mean people going without an income for weeks on end.”
Claimants left ‘highly vulnerable to exploitation
It comes after South Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, spoke of his concerns that UC could leave those in poverty exposed to exploitation by criminals, saying it leaves some claimants in a “highly vulnerable” position and prey to those who can offer ‘help’ as a way to put people in debt to them, leaving little option but “to do all sorts of things”.
Universal Credit was meant to save money and simplify the welfare system by replacing six benefits for unemployed people or those on low incomes with one monthly payment.
But it has faced repeated criticism for leaving claimants worse off than under legacy benefits and for an error-prone system that can drive some to the brink of destitution.
So far, only new benefit claimants or those whose circumstances have changed have been placed on Universal Credit - amounting to some 1.8m people. New claimants in every part of the UK are now placed on Universal Credit, after a five-year roll-out.
Sue Ramsden, the policy lead for Universal Credit at the National Housing Federation, whose members provide two-and-a-half-million housing association homes for more than five million people in England, said: “We survey our members on a regular basis and they consistently report a high level of arrears in Universal Credit than other types of benefit.”
Evidence from housing associations shows that people in receipt of UC are almost twice as likely to be in rent arrears than other tenants, she revealed.
Claimants struggle with the initial wait for payment as the “self-service” aspect of the benefit when having to communicate with the DWP online, she said, though added that some report finding UC better than previous systems.
A DWP spokesman said: “We completely disagree with this analysis which compares fundamentally different claimant groups.
"Many people claim Universal Credit (UC) after a significant life event and will join with pre-existing arrears. While those on legacy benefits are likely to have been claiming for a longer period, with arrears having reduced over time.
“Research shows that the number of people joining UC with arrears falls by a third after four months. And we have made changes to help further including removing the 7-day waiting period, paying two weeks of extra housing support for new claims and paying rent directly to landlords.”