'Unholy mess' of universal credit has brought soaring rates of personal debt to my borough, says Yorkshire council chief

A Yorkshire council chief executive has criticised the 'unholy mess' engulfing the Government's flagship universal credit scheme as she said it had led to soaring rates of food bank use and personal debt in her own borough.

Doncaster council’s Jo Miller, the president of Solace, the body representing council chief executives and senior managers, launched a fierce attack on the ‘Whitehall ivory tower’ as she described the difficulties senior officers and frontline staff face in the era of austerity.

Ministers this week bowed to pressure and revealed that the switch-over for existing benefit claimants to universal credit (UC) was to be delayed. The system - which will merge six benefits into one payment - has been beset with problems.

Last month The Yorkshire Post ran a series of articles setting out the impact of the scheme on different parts of the region, ahead of its full implementation in Leeds and Sheffield.

And in her speech to the Solace annual conference in Brighton, Ms Miller offered the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) the support of local leaders to change the policy for the better.

She said: “Inequality is one of the greatest scourges of our time and our fractured society will only become more united if it is to become more equal. Strong vibrant communities make for strong vibrant economies.

“Decisions are best made by a diverse group of people representing the communities they serve, that take into account the lived experience of those people whom decisions will be visited upon.

“When you don’t do that., when you have policy implementation designed in a Whitehall ivory tower overflowing with hubris and an all-pervasive ‘centre knows best’ mentality, you end up with the unholy mess that is the design and implementation of universal credit that in my own borough has seen food bank use and personal debt soar.

“Let’s hope the current UC pause isn’t just a ‘throw money at it’ approach, but a real opportunity to get the very many things that are wrong with the administration of this laudable policy intent right.

“I make an open offer to DWP colleagues once again, right here, right now. Let us help you. Let us inform your actions. The people whom we serve deserve nothing short of that.”She said many local authorities were “struggling to deliver even the most basic of core services in future”.

The chief executive said this was despite the “plethora of special purpose funding steams” which amounted to £5.5bn, made up of 106 different funding sources from 16 departments, the majority with costly bidding processes and only six weeks or less to bid for the funds.

She said: “Here’s a free suggestion to those in power – If you want to get the most value out of public spending – spend less time on the doling out of minute pots of cash tied to specific terms and conditions – and spend it more wisely.

“That same £5.5 billion could have reversed cuts to local public health grant and early intervention grant alone. What price democracy and the power of the vote when, as one colleague puts it, almost the entire budget of his council is subsumed by the social care needs of five per cent of the population?”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “Universal Credit replaces an out-of-date, complex benefits system with cliff edges that disincentivised work and often trapped people in unemployment. Under UC people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.

“Through our ‘test and learn’ approach, we have listened to feedback from stakeholders and claimants and made improvements, including increasing advances to 100 per cent, removing the 7-day waiting period and paying people’s Housing Benefit for two weeks while they wait for the first UC payment.

“The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.”