Parts of Yorkshire which have introduced Universal Credit ahead of its national rollout are reporting increased food bank use from desperate clients. Chris Burn reports.
“People are very upset, don’t have anything in their cupboards and don’t know what to do. They are just at their wits’ end. They are struggling to provide for themselves and their families.”
Michelle Gregg, director of housing services for the Yorkshire Housing Association, has seen at first-hand the difficulties facing people finding themselves in rent arrears after changes to their benefits onto the controversial Universal Credit system on visits to properties with her team.
“We have had quite an increase in people who need referrals to food banks,” she says of the service’s arrival in Ryedale. That experience has been echoed across Yorkshire, with similar issues reported in Harrogate, Sheffield, and Wakefield as people wait weeks for their first payments under the new system and are subjected to unexpected deductions.
Universal Credit is a single monthly payment designed to replace six benefits - Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related Employment and Support Allowance and Working Tax Credit and simplify the system. It is being introduced in stages across the country and is due to be in place everywhere by December 2018.
But multiple problems have been reported with the roll-out so far, with harrowing stories from across the country reported in evidence submitted to the Work and Pensions Select Committee by housing associations and charities.
Gregg says one of the problems with the way the system works is how it affects those in jobs with uncertain hours and salaries such as taxi drivers, retail staff and the self-employed.
“In Ryedale, there are people on low incomes whose wages fluctuate. If you have a good month in terms of extra hours,you will get much less Universal Credit but because that comes a month later it might coincide with a month where you also have a low wage. It is quite hard to work out how much you are going to get.
“Having that uncertainty can make it difficult to plan or budget. If a big bill comes in, you can be really stuck.
“Usually if someone works extra hours and gets paid more, that is a good thing. But unless they continue at that level, it will affect them more in the months when they get a lower Universal Credit payment.
“That difficulty is something we have seen. People who absolutely want to work and are working feel they are being punished. If you don’t know what you are going to be paid this month or the month after, it is hard if you haven’t got the certainty to plan.”
Yorkshire Housing Association said earlier this year that the average rental arrears for those clients on Universal Credit was £416, compared to £144 for those still outside the new system. It also warned about the rate of at avoidable sanctions placed on claimants, “some of whom are vulnerable, live in isolated villages across North Yorkshire with no IT access, no smart phone and expensive public transport to their nearest Job Centre Plus”.
Wakefield and District Housing warned in March that of the 327 tenants it had claiming Universal Credit, 299 were in some form of rent arrears.
It said that the minimum six-week wait for the first payment under the new system was seeing tenants “often required to rely on support from friends and family to get by and increasingly on the support provided by food banks”, as well as turning to legal and illegal doorstep lenders.
The organisation added: ““We have also identified significant difficulties as an individual moves into work whilst claiming UC. This is especially apparent where a claimant moves into partial employment or is on a zero hours contract. Here the claimant is required to conduct quite complex budgeting and to take into consideration previous months earnings, current work and also forecast potential work in the following month in order to budget effectively.”
Citizens Advice Sheffield said in October: “The evidence from our clients’ points to minimum waiting times of six weeks before claims are processed and often these times are longer.
“Our clients report separate and serious delays in processing living and housing costs. The impact of delays in living costs means nothing to eat and reliance of help from food banks. It also impacts on the ability to pay for fuel for heating, cooking and heating, with had a particularly detrimental impact on the poorest who use prepayment meters meaning for some an inability to heat up the tinned food received from the food bank.
“The delays in the processing of housing costs is leading to threats of possession action, possession orders and, in the worse cases reported to us, eviction proceedings.
“We make frequent referrals to food banks and the evidence from our clients on UC points to this increasing as we lead up to and become a full service area. We have taken the step of embedding advice workers in the foodbanks to reach some of the most vulnerable people who otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t contact us. Unfortunately, we now see food banks as the de facto first source of support for the poorest rather than the State.”
Citizens Advice Harrogate District warned earlier this year it had dealt with several people “who have lost many thousands of pounds because they were signposted to Universal Credit or been given incorrect information that has led to them having to claim Universal Credit straightaway and as a result have lost their transitional protection”. It said the issue had particularly affected severely disabled people without carers who received Severe Disability Premium payments - a form of support that did not have an equivalent under Universal Credit.
In response to criticism, changes to the system have been promised by the Government. The wait for payment will be reduced from six weeks to five weeks from February and it will be made easier for people for apply for payment advances, as well as doubling the amount of time to repay advances from six months to one year.
Gregg says these are steps in the right direction - but more needs to be done.
“As far as we are concerned, anything that helps is better than nothing. We are pleased people will wait five weeks rather than six weeks but I think we have preferred a little more change. and the timeframe being shortened even further. But it is a start.”