THE ROLL-OUT of the new Universal Credit welfare benefit is hitting people hard in Solihull.
A significant proportion of the borough’s claimants have fallen into severe debt, critics say.
Universal Credit is the new form of benefit payment encompassing previous claimants of housing benefit, child tax credit, income support, working tax credit, job seeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance.
The government’s Department for Work and Pensions said there were 2,150 people in Solihull claiming Universal Credit, according to August figures.
The benefit was first fully rolled out in Solihull this April.
The welfare reform has been revered by some as an incentive for work, but reviled by others who say it is unfair and poorly managed.
Official statistics from various sources compiled by Green councillor Chris Williams (Chelmsley Wood) show that a significant proportion of Universal Credit claimants eligible to pay council tax or rent for a council property have fallen into debt.
Nearly a third (32 per cent) council tax payers in receipt of Universal Credit in the borough are in arrears, adding to the strain of making payments on time.
To make matters worse, unpaid council tax is a priority debt because the council has strong powers to force payment.
The figures also show that, for Universal Credit recipients who rent a council property, a huge 74 per cent are in rent arrears and the figure rises to 86 per cent of claimants who have come on to Universal Credit since August 1.
Coun Williams said: “I find it heartbreaking to hear the stories of so many residents in the borough who struggle with debt that has really been caused by government mistakes.
“We’re close to Christmas and we’ve seen families in Solihull without any money to pay the rent, pay their council tax, put the heating on and look after their children for Christmas.
“It’s about time the government got a grip and stopped making life so hard for families.
“It’s the children who suffer most and that’s not right in the civilised country we are supposed to be living in.”
In recent weeks, as the roll-out of Universal Credit has accelerated, the difficult switch has been much criticised.
The six-week wait for transfer to Universal Credit and a six-week delay in any benefit payment has been condemned for plunging people into poverty and debt.
Waiting time for first payments has since been changed to five weeks (from February next year) in the chancellor Philip Hammond’s Autumn budget last Wednesday.
Meriden MP Dame Caroline Spelman said: “The Meriden constituency forms part of the roll-out programme for Universal Credit.
“Whilst I support reform of the welfare system, I am mindful of just how important it is that Parliament gets this right.
“To that end I did recently meet the District Manager for Solihull Jobcentre Plus to discuss the roll-out programme and payments to claimants.
“I have also corresponded and met with constituents in my surgery and did write to the government with their concerns.
“I think it is positive that people claiming Universal Credit are 13 per cent more likely to be in work than people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance, and are earning more money on average.
“Nevertheless, I welcome the fact that the government has acted on concerns about the implementation of these changes and recently announced that advance payments will be made within five days or the same day in emergency cases.”
Somebody applying for Universal Credit can ask for an advance of their first payment if they are facing financial hardship while the claim is processed – although this is only a loan.
SUPPORT SERVICES UNDER STRAIN
UNIVERSAL Credit has been criticised by several Solihull support services for placing a strain on their ability to help those in need.
The local Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) and the Trussel Trust, a national foodbank network, have expressed their concerns about the affect of the Universal Credit switch on those that use their services.
The CAB has helped people with over 100,000 Universal Credit issues nationally, and has received requests for support from 88 people in Solihull since September with making the switch.
Many more will have to make the switch as Universal Credit is being introduced in stages across the UK. In Solihull it was rolled-out in April.
A Solihull CAB representative said residents were coming forward with debt issues, inability to pay bills and having their housing benefit cancelled.
There is a requirement for IT skills with many struggling to make the first application online.
The CASB provided us with the following stories: “A young man with a serious heart condition turned to us for help when he lost his job, had to apply for UC, and the six -week wait meant he fell behind on rent.
“He was served an eviction notice by his private landlord, which has had a negative impact on his health.
“He also had to ask for a budgeting advance and this is now being deducted from his ongoing Universal Credit payments.”
She added of another case: “One client with lots of health problems applied for Universal Credit after being found fit for work.
“The six-week wait to receive any money has pushed him into rent arrears.
“He will be repaying this and an advance loan back for the next two years.”
Kerry Turner, chief executive of CASB said: “Universal Credit is deeply flawed and many people are already turning to us for help as they struggle with the benefit.”
The Citizens Advice Bureau is one of the bodies that called on the government to reduce how long people wait for their first payment while making sure claimants receive their money on time.
Green councillors in Solihull claimed use of foodbanks has also increased as charities struggle to help people in desperate need.
The Trussell Trust which operates the Kingfisher food bank in Smith’s Wood, claim Universal Credit is partly to blame for the record high level use of food banks.
The charity’s figures have shown that in the West Midlands between April 1 and September 30, last year compared to this year, there has been around a 65,000 increase in three-day emergency food supplies provided to people in crisis by the Trust.
Distribution of emergency supplies has risen from 519,342 to 586,907, equating to around a 12 per cent increase.
On April 3, a statement by the Minister for Employment, Damian Hinds MP said: “Universal Credit is central to our goal of building a Britain that works for everyone and it is already transforming lives across the country.
“We are simplifying the system, making it more tailored to claimants needs and enabling those who have been out of a job for a while to take on short contracts to build up their skills and confidence for a full time role.
“Today sees the next step towards our goal in Solihull, with Universal Credit expanding to become available to the full range of claimants, bringing additional support to break down the barriers to work.”
However, Mark Wilson, Green councillor for Smith’s Wood, said belfore the chancellor’s statement: “Universal Credit is having a crippling affect on many people in both north and south Solihull.
“People in work and out of work are struggling and by operating Universal Credit with this six-week delay in payment is like pushing people off a cliff.
“Both Solihull MPs did not vote to change this broken system when it was debated in Parliament. I’m afraid that has put them at odds with too many people in our borough”.