Universal Credit is still pushing hundreds into financial crisis in Mansfield and Ashfield just weeks ahead of the second half of its introduction, we can reveal.
Our special report has been put together by the Jpimedia investigation team and your Chad.
The controversial benefit is leaving an ever-growing number of people in deep rent arrears, with the number of claimants evicted from council houses reaching an all-time high.
On average, council tenants on Universal Credit who have fallen behind with their rent owe £681, more than twice the amount of those on the old Housing Benefit system.
Half a million calls to the Government’s official Universal Credit helpline also went unanswered in the first three months of this year, more than in the whole of 2017.
And JPIMedia Investigations can also reveal the high knock-on costs faced by many local councils as Universal Credit claimants fall behind with council tax payments.
Figures obtained from councils indicate the cost to local authorities of this lost tax could now amount to more than £130m a year.
Universal Credit is now active for new benefit claimants in every part of the UK.
But with the second half of the roll-out – to three million old-style benefit claimants – due to start with a trial in July, charities have called for an urgent halt to the programme to avoid an impending catastrophe.
In-built problems with Universal Credit are leading people towards “destitution and homelessness”, according to Shelter’s policy lead Stephanie Kleynhans.
Margaret Greenwood MP, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said: “This important investigation is a shocking reminder that Universal Credit is clearly failing.”
She said the Government “must stop the roll-out of Universal Credit”.
The Department for Work and Pensions has insisted Universal Credit is a “force for good, providing support to more than 1.8 million people”.
It said it had made various changes to Universal Credit to prevent people going into rent arrears, such as paying rent directly to landlords where requested. And it said it regularly reviews staffing levels on its helpline “to ensure we have the right number of people available to answer calls”.
A spokesman added: “Universal Credit gives people control over their finances and helps them into work.”
Most experts agree that Universal Credit is a good idea.
It simplifies claiming by amalgamating five existing benefits into one payment and supports those on benefit into work through top-ups to low wages.
Yet the evidence of failure is now so great that Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, admitted in February that Universal Credit was giving rise to greater poverty and increased use of food banks.
In Mansfield Universal Credit was fully rolled out in September 2018 and in November 2018 in Ashfield. In Mansfield the number of people on Universal Credit in February 2019 not in employment was 1,517; in employment 719, with a total of 2,243.
In Ashfield not in employment was 1,177; in employment 635, with a total 1,811.
Ashfield District Councillor Kier Barsby, Portfolio Holder for Housing, said: “Ashfield District Council has had to invest heavily in supporting tenants through the Universal Credit process and in meeting their rent liabilities. Additional temporary staffing resources have been introduced to help tenants manage their budgets, claim grants and benefits, get online and set up bank accounts, all of which are required for the change on to Universal Credit.
“Between April 2018 and March 2019, the council brought in an additional circa £396,406 worth of income for the tenants our officers supported.
“With regard to Council Tax, all Universal Credit applicants who have to pay Council Tax are able to apply for Local Council Tax Support, which in Ashfield can be as much as a 100 per cent reduction in the Council Tax they have to pay.
“It is too early to determine whether significant numbers of claimants who have moved onto Universal Credit have not also claimed Council Tax Support.
If there is any increase in Council Tax arrears then that would be as a result of claimants failing to apply for Council Tax Support. We have seen no evidence that this is happening to date.
“We are also working closely with the DWP and Ashfield Citizens Advice including Universal Credit roadshows and shared literature to ensure that new Universal Credit claimants are fully aware of how Universal Credit works, how it effects their rent and the need to apply for our Council Tax Support scheme as soon as possible.
Jill Finnesey, Head of Housing at Mansfield District Council, said: “The council works with its partners, including the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), to offer tenants support with Universal Credit. The council also has dedicated Financial Inclusion Officers to help tenants claim the right benefits and deal with debt.
“We are also holding a series of tenant roadshows across the district starting on Wednesday 29 May to give advice about the various services available to tenants.
The DWP will be among those attending and will offer ‘myth-busting’ advice on benefits and Universal Credit. See the council’s website for further details of the roadshows www.mansfield.gov.uk/roadshows.
Food banks in Mansfield are running low in stock and say that benefits issues are to blame. Both The Beacon Project based at St John’s Centre in Mansfield and Trussell Trust run St Peter’s Food Bank on Rock Valley, Mansfield are running low on stocks.
A spokesman for the Trussell Trust said: “Due to the increase in the numbers of people seeking help from us, as they struggle with Universal Credit, our warehouse is almost empty.
Universal Credits means that people usually get a single payment each month, rather than weekly or fortnightly.
The Trussell Trust said that this change of payment caused 70 per cent of people they asked to be in debt.
In Ashfield, Citizens Advice has dealt with over 1,000 issues relating to Universal Credit since the new year.
Kathryn Stacey CEO at Ashfield Citizens Advice said: “Many people come to see us with queries around reduced payments due to sanctions or if they have had an advanced payment when they first made a claim and have to repay and are finding it difficult to manage their finances.
“We are also finding that some people are having difficulty making initial claims so are providing them support through our ‘Help to Claim’ scheme.”
“Nationally, Citizens Advice has campaigned to ‘Fix Universal Credit’ and had some success with the November 2018 budget where the Government announced a £1.5 billion package to improve UC.
“Other changes include removing the seven waiting days; Introducing an additional non-repayable financial payment for those moving from Housing Benefit to UC to help people pay their rent.
“And changes to advance payments so claimants can receive 100 per cent of their payment as an advance, and pay it back over 12 months. All claimants should be told they can get an Advance Payment.
“Making the UC helpline free; a slowdown in the roll out of full service UC; and closure of new claims to the ‘live service’.”
Locally, Ashfield Citizens Advice can provide a free ‘Help to Claim’ service so that new claimants can be supported Monday to Friday through offices at Kirkby (930am-2pm) and at the Job Centre (10am-1230pm).