A damning report on the chaotic implementation of Universal Credit in part of Somerset says claimants are being forced to use food banks to survive and are running up rent arrears as they wait for claims to be handled. The report highlights the problems faced by people struggling to deal with the online system and says there is inadequate support for the most vulnerable. Labour says Universal Credit is not working and people are being forced into destitution.
Universal Credit replaced other benefits for all claimants in Sedgemoor this summer. The district is a pilot area, before Universal Credit is implemented nationally. The impact has been monitored by the district council, Citizens Advice Sedgemoor and Digilink – an organisation that helps people with online access. Their joint report makes disturbing reading. The CAB found:
- Long delays in payment are forcing people to rely on food banks to survive
- Many claimants face “digital exclusion” – with no internet access they struggle to make claims and are not being told they can claim in other ways
- Clients without bank accounts are frozen out
- During the waiting time for claims to be paid, claimants are running up rent arrears. When the first payment comes it is often used to pay the rent, leaving nothing for living costs
- Processes are unclear and clients are receiving conflicting information from Job Centre Plus.
Sedgemoor on the frontline
Sedgemoor Council has been on the front line of dealing with Universal Credit problems, because for the first time claimants’ housing costs are being dealt with under a national system. Benefits staff at Sedgemoor say:
- There is a lack of understanding of the severity of some claimants’ circumstances and inadequate support for the most vulnerable.
- Extra work is needed with tenants to prevent them going into arrears
- Call centres are failing by providing inadequate anwers and explanations.
- The policy of the scheme is set centrally, yet solutions at a local level are needed and there is inadequate funding.
Digilink has been running sessions to provide residents with access to and support in using the internet. It says:
- The most vulnerable 15-20% in society are really struggling through a lack of confidence
- Even with support, clients cannot become “digitally fluent” overnight
- Clients are being “pushed from pillar to post” and do not understand why they’re filling things out or what the end result will be
- As a result, Digilink has seen an increase in frustrated clients and there are concerns about the impact on their emotional well-being.
Case Studies show UC is not working
Cllr Mick Lerry, Leader of the Labour Group on Sedgemoor Council, said: “I welcome the work undertaken by Sedgemoor District Council, to highlight the impact of the roll out of Universal Credit in the district. The evidence shows that Universal Credit is not supporting the most vulnerable people and the inadequate administration of the programme is forcing many into debt and reliance on loan sharks and food banks. Case studies show that the roll out of UC is not working and the Department of Work and Pensions must understand how the people in need are being forced into destitution. I have sent the report to Debbie Abrahams, Labour Shadow Secretary of State for DWP, so that she is aware of what is happening to people locally and can challenge the Government, with the evidence in the report”