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‘We’re being used as guinea pigs’ - impact of universal credit welfare revolution felt hardest in Yarmouth

PUBLISHED: 08:08 02 December 2016 | UPDATED: 17:11 02 December 2016

Jackie Esposito and Sue Dawson. Great Yarmouth landlords who are owed thousands of pounds in rent arrears brought about by the introduction of universal credit. 
PHOTO: Nick Butcher

Jackie Esposito and Sue Dawson. Great Yarmouth landlords who are owed thousands of pounds in rent arrears brought about by the introduction of universal credit. PHOTO: Nick Butcher

©archant2016

A welfare revolution has left a trail of damage to people’s lives in Great Yarmouth.

Landlords have warned problems introducing the welfare changes could lead to a rise in rough sleepers in Yarmouth. 
PHOTO: Nick Butcher Landlords have warned problems introducing the welfare changes could lead to a rise in rough sleepers in Yarmouth. PHOTO: Nick Butcher

Landlords claim they are threatened with financial ruin, tenants have been evicted and fallen into arrears and the town’s foodbank said it has seen a 300pc rise in demand. They blame the problems on Yarmouth being picked as a pilot for a benefit system called universal credit.

Universal Credit, which replaces six other benefits with one payment, was introduced to Yarmouth in April, but there have been delays of three months for claimants to get money.

It will be rolled out to the rest of the region over the next two years.

The government hopes it will get more people working, but people in the town accused the government of using them as “guinea pigs” and said the long delay in payments was hitting everybody from the most vulnerable tenants to the health system.

Ashley Britton and his partner Rosinda Louro. Ms Louro has been refused universal credit. 

PHOTO: Nick Butcher Ashley Britton and his partner Rosinda Louro. Ms Louro has been refused universal credit. PHOTO: Nick Butcher

The waits for universal credit have been caused by extra paperwork needed to make claims and IT problems.

Additional workers have been brought in to the resort’s job centre to deal with the backlog.

And a leading landlord has warned smaller landlords may go under because of the changes.

Chairman of the Eastern Landlords Association Paul Cunningham said he had to evict a tenant because of arrears caused by universal credit delays.

What is universal credit?

Universal credit is the last Government’s flagship benefit reform.

It replaces six other benefits for people out of work or on low incomes.

They are housing benefit, working tax credit, child tax credit, income support, jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance.

Great Yarmouth was picked by the DWP to test it, while other areas such as Lowestoft have trialled a version of it.

In the next two years it will be rolled out across the rest of East Anglia.

It means people who would previously have claimed jobseeker’s allowance or other benefits will get universal credit.

It will be introduced to the rest of Waveney in October 2017, South Norfolk Council area in February 2018, Breckland in March 2018, Fenland in May 2018, Broadland District Council, North Norfolk District Council, Norwich City Council, Suffolk Coastal in June 2018.

In July 2018 it will come to King’s Lynn & West Norfolk.

Those living in Forest Heath District Council area will get it from September 2018.

“I’ve been a landlord for 25 years and this is the biggest threat in that time to both tenants and smaller landlords,” he said.

One tenant evicted two weeks ago when he fell into arrears because of a three-month wait for universal credit said the stress of the delay had given him heart problems.

Matthew Wright, 55, said: “It has made me ill. It has given me a heart condition.

“It all started with the stress of being unemployed and not having money.”

Another tenant, Rosinda Louro, who came to the UK from Portugal 20 years ago, has been refused universal credit, despite being on benefits previously.

She was told by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) she did not have a right to reside in the UK.

She has now fallen into rent arrears.

Her case has been taken up by UKIP county councillor Jonathon Childs who said 120 people had contacted him on Facebook in the last two weeks about universal credit and housing problems in Yarmouth.

“I was unaware of the hardship that was going on,” he said. “It is something that really impacts a poor town.”

•Listen and read to interviews with those affected by universal credit delays here

Liz Townson, from Great Yarmouth Foodbank, said services across the town - from the NHS to charities - had been under more pressure since universal credit was introduced.

The foodbank has seen a 300pc increase in the number of parcels they give out since August.

“It has a knock-on effect throughout the town,” she said. “It is affecting everybody and causing a lot of stress for people”.

The foodbank has written a letter to Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis and work and pensions secretary Damian Green describing how agencies they work with have reported an impact on people’s mental health and family life because of benefit delays.

Councillors from all parties on Great Yarmouth Borough Council also sent a letter on November 15 to Mr Green about their “deep concerns” about the roll-out of universal credit in the area.

They called for an “urgent investigation” into the impact of its introduction.

They also said it was causing “unnecessary stress and anxiety for claimants” and demanded to know why Yarmouth was chosen as a pilot.

The council said it was owed £82,000 from 400 tenants.

Yarmouth Conservative MP Brandon Lewis said he was speaking to Mr Green about the issue.

He said he had raised every case a constituent sent him about universal credit with the DWP.

He said claimants might be able to get an advance payment while they waited for universal credit if they needed support.

Mr Lewis also pointed out a Discretionary Housing Payment scheme meant councils could give claimants who receive housing benefit or universal credit money if they needed help with housing costs.

Mr Lewis added: “Obviously, it is very important we get people the right money at the right time and we are already seeing an improvement in getting housing claims verified in good time.

“The Department for Work and Pensions has long recognised the challenges that some claimants, particularly those with multiple or complex needs, may face in the transition to Universal Credit.

“This is why they have developed the personal budgeting strategy to ensure that claimants have access to suitable financial products and money advice and, for the small minority that need them, alternative payment arrangements can be set up.”

•Read and listen to interviews with those affect by universal credit here

•Do you have a story which needs investigating? Email tom.bristow@archant.co.uk or call 01603 772834

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