Yorkshire campaigners call for review of Government's flagship Universal Credit project

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Campaigners are urging the Government to review its controversial benefit reforms ahead of further roll-outs as the turmoil facing families across Yorkshire continues to emerge.

National charities such as the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Church Action on Poverty, which has strong links in the region, are both calling on Ministers to tackle existing problems with Universal Credit (UC) before huge numbers of families currently claiming tax credits are moved over to it.

However, the Department of Work and Pensions has defended the reforms and Kevin Hollinrake, the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty, does not accept previous National Audit Office findings that the system is not proven to be value for money.

Despite initial cross-party support for the principle of combining six state benefits into one system, The Yorkshire Post can reveal problems faced by those in the region’s biggest cities, towns, coast and rural heartlands.

Chris Goulden, the deputy director of policy and research at the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “It’s not right that people have to struggle to get by when they are trying to find work, they’re already in work, they’re doing for the most part what’s expected of them, but still below a decent standard of living.”

A major criticism is that recipients can face weeks of delays before their first payment arrives. In 2017, there were 113,000 late payments of new claims, according to the National Audit Office.

Professor Peter Dwyer, from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at the University of York, said: “If someone has come out of work and has not got a bank of savings, it’s problematic. It means they may fall into rent arrears, it may exacerbate debt they already have.”

Another recurring criticism has been the housing element being paid directly to tenants, and on a monthly basis, which if they are suffering poor cash flow can lead to them making a choice between paying their rent or buying other essentials.

Such issues come ahead of moving those who claim other “legacy benefits” being moved on to Universal Credit up to 2023.

“Because of all those other issues, we are not really sure the system is ready to take that big ramp up,” said Mr Goulden.

And Professor Dwyer said that over the last few decades, benefit conditions – rules for claimants to follow to receive payments – have increasingly affected those already in work or in need of support because they are unable to get a job, such as incapacity.

Those signing on to Universal Credit do make a Claimant Commitment, but Harrogate Jobcentre work coach Vicki Collier said these are “extremely tailored” to recipients’ circumstances.

Alok Sharma MP, Minister of State for Employment, said: “In the past, some people faced losing benefits entirely if they worked above a certain amount – this ‘16 hour cliff-edge’ meant that people could be better off remaining on benefits rather than taking on more hours. Universal Credit, by contrast, helps people smoothly transition into work, as the amount you receive in benefits gradually reduces as your pay increases.”

But Mr Goulden is calling for a review of UC, saying the Government should “make the case”.

Niall Cooper, the director of the charity Church Action on Poverty, added: “More than 90,000 people in Yorkshire are on Universal Credit and many more will move on to it in the coming months. It’s vital that the Government acts now to fix it by providing more flexibility and support, by reducing the waiting time for initial payments, by extending the period for loan repayments and by committing to providing people with an adequate income, so they can consistently afford good food.”