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Universal Credit problems are pushing families into debt, says charity

PUBLISHED: 15:21 12 July 2017 | UPDATED: 16:50 12 July 2017

JOB SEEKER LOOKING AT SEASONAL JOBS BOARD AT THE JOB CENTRE

JOB SEEKER LOOKING AT SEASONAL JOBS BOARD AT THE JOB CENTRE

A charity is calling on the government to fix problems with Universal Credit (UC) which it says are pushing many into debt.

David Potten who is set to take over the role of chief executive of the Norfolk Citizens Advice BureauDavid Potten who is set to take over the role of chief executive of the Norfolk Citizens Advice Bureau

Norfolk Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) is warning that the new benefit is putting people’s financial security at risk as they wait six weeks or more for their first payment.

Since UC was introduced in Great Yarmouth last April as a pilot scheme, the charity has already helped 125 people experiencing problems with the benefit.

Their report found that over a third of people had to wait more than the six weeks it should take to receive their first benefits payment and just over one in 10 waited over 10 weeks without any payment.

MORE: Universal Credit roll out has caused people to “slip through the net”

Three in five had to borrow money while waiting for their first payment.

Acting chief executive of Norfolk CAB, David Potten, said the principles behind UC are sound, but a mix of flaws in how the benefit was designed and problems with how it is being delivered is leaving many people’s finances in tatters.

Mr Potten added: “We’re already helping many people across Norfolk who are having problems with UC, and by 2022 if will affect tens of thousands 
of households in the area.

“If the government doesn’t fix significant problems with UC then many families across Norfolk may be put at financial risk, which can in turn put huge pressure on other local services such as health, housing and social care.

“If anyone does run into problems with UC, don’t hesitate to contact Norfolk CAB for help.”

MORE: ‘We’re being used as guinea pigs’

A DWP spokesperson said: “As Citizens Advice makes clear, this report is based on evidence from a self-selecting group of people and is not representative of the half a million people claiming UC.

“The best way to help people pay their rent and improve their lives is to help them into work, and under UC people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system. UC is designed 
to mirror the way many people in work are paid, and we have budgeting advice and benefit advances available for anyone who needs extra help.

“The vast majority of claimants have told us they are satisfied with UC. We are rolling out UC in a gradual, safe and secure way, and in the rare cases where issues arise, we work closely with local authorities 
and landlords to support people when they need it.”

Recommendations to government

In its new report national Citizens Advice makes a range of recommendations to fix Universal Credit before it is rolled out more widely:

• Reduce how long people have to wait for their first payment

• Remove the seven waiting days at the start of a claim, to reduce the amount of time people have to wait for their first payment.

• Make sure everyone moving to Universal Credit is told they can get an Advance Payment to help them while they wait for their first payment.

• Improve the support available to people so they can make ends meet

• Introduce an online system for people to book their initial Jobcentre appointments, rather than having to call the Universal Credit helpline.

• Make the Universal Credit helpline free of charge, at least until the roll-out is complete.

• Allow people to adjust to Universal Credit by offering everyone options in how they would like the benefit to be paid.

• Put in place a comprehensive support package before Universal Credit roll-out accelerates, to make sure people get advice to manage their money and deal with any complications in the application process.

Financial pressure

Karen and her husband tried to make a joint UC claim when full service rolled out in their area of East Anglia. Karen was given a code to register her husband’s details, but it wasn’t accepted by the online application system. She tried to get through to the helpline, but after numerous attempts her credit ran out. She had spent £9 on the calls. Karen came to Citizens Advice and an adviser called the helpline on her behalf.

After waiting to get through for around 40 minutes, Karen was told the UC service centre did not have the IT required to deal with her problem and that she needed to go to the Jobcentre. By the time she had visited the Jobcentre to have the problem resolved, the family’s application had been delayed by an extra week. Given this is then followed by a six-week wait for a first payment, small implementation issues considerably increased the financial pressures on Karen and her family.

Two month delay

There have been dozens of cases people not receiving any payment for weeks.

For one mother, who only gave her name as Lisa, it was her first experience of claiming benefits.

She said the experience after losing her job had left her “shocked and frustrated”.

After losing her job, it took over two months before she received any payment, leaving her struggling to pay the mortgage and bills.

She said she was told by the job centre in Great Yarmouth it would take four weeks to process her claim and then a few days to pay money.

But while her claim was being assessed she received her last pay cheque from her job, meaning her claim was then put back by another month.

She added: “I have never done this before and I feel naïve and ignorant I didn’t see this coming.”

In response to the difficulties the government made funding available to help in extreme cases of delayed payments.

One in five households

Universal Credit was introduced to replace six working-age benefits, including Jobseeker’s Allowance, into one single payment.

It would be paid monthly instead of fort-nightly and could also be paid to people who were in work and would be reduced gradually once someone was back in employment.

By 2022, UC will be claimed by 95,000 households across Norfolk, including 15,500 households across Great Yarmouth.

As Yarmouth is expected to have around 52,000 households by 2025, UC will affect 20pc of homes.

Across the country one in four working age households will be claiming Universal Credit. More than half of those claimants will be in employment.

The benefit will also be claimed by more than half of all families with children in the UK and 58pc households where an adult is disabled or has a long term health condition.

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