Universal Credit: Claimants ‘stealing food’ to eat due to benefit delays
Finance chief warns people are being forced into new debt
23 March, 2017 — By Richard Osley
Camden Council has given evidence to a select committee investigation
DESPERATE tenants faced with long delays in accessing new Universal Credit benefits are beginning to steal food to survive, the Town Hall has warned a parliamentary committee.
Camden Council told the Work and Pensions Select Committee that the new system – a single monthly, means-tested benefit – was backfiring due to delays in the system. This meant people were racking up debts and rent arrears before they had received any help. In some cases, people are waiting up to six weeks before claims are processed.
The Town Hall’s official submission to MPs said: “One tenant has confessed to a rent officer that they were stealing food to eat. It is common to hear that Universal Credit claimants are borrowing heavily from family and friends. The Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit helpline set up to advise claimants on the progress of their claim is providing an unacceptable service. Telephone calls can cost up to 55p a minute from pay-as-you-go mobile phones, which are commonly used by people with lower incomes. Wait times to speak with an adviser can be very long – one claimant in Camden has reported that their phone bill for a month was over £140, used almost entirely on calls to the DWP.”
The council is one of a number of local authorities, volunteer groups and charities giving evidence to the committee investigating the effectiveness of the new benefit system, first devised by former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
The reforms were meant to make the process of claiming benefits simpler through a single account, but the monthly cycle has left many struggling as they wait for a first payment. The council, meanwhile, fears that landlords will stop letting to those affected, particularly as many do not have savings to fall back on.
Around 230 people currently claim Universal Credit in Camden, but this figure could jump to 10,000 when the system is rolled out across the country this year.
Camden’s submission to the committee added: “While we recognise there is much to support in a benefit system that encourages claimants to take responsibility for a personal budget and outgoings, we feel strongly that a system should not be set up in a way that potentially adds to the risk of vulnerable people losing their home.”
Camden finance chief Councillor Theo Blackwell said: “Any new policy is likely to have problems at the start, but our evidence from the small group currently in the system locally shows some worrying problems forcing very poor Camden residents further into debt, undermining Universal Credit’s aim to be an effective safety net for the most vulnerable. I hope the government isn’t too preoccupied with problems of its own making to sort these problems out.”
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: “Under Universal Credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system. Our research shows the majority of UC claimants are comfortable managing their budgets. We’re working with local authorities and landlords to get extra support to people who may find themselves in arrears. “We’ve been rolling Universal Credit out gradually so we have time to ensure it works in the right way.”