Universal Credit could pose “huge problems” for most vulnerable in north Norfolk

North Norfolk District Council leader Tom FitzPatrick and High Sheriff of Norfolk Sir William Cubitt

North Norfolk District Council leader Tom FitzPatrick and High Sheriff of Norfolk Sir William Cubitt with volunteers and the opening of the new Citizens Advice branch in North Walsham. Picture: MILES JERMY - Credit: Archant

Fears have been raised this week about the impact controversial benefit reforms could have on some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

The government's Universal Credit scheme is due to be rolled out across north Norfolk within the next 18 months.

Norfolk Citizen's Advice, which offers free advice on debt, benefits, employment and housing, has formed a partnership with North Walsham Town Council to provide a welfare specialist service to help claimants cope with the new system.

Universal Credit will see a bundle of income based benefits - including Jobseekers' Allowance, tax credits and housing benefit – merged into one payment.

The new welfare system has been blamed for a rise in the number of tenants evicted and falling into arrears in Great Yarmouth, which was picked as a pilot for the reform.

Norfolk Citizens Advice (NCA) CEO Steve Cheshire, who attended the official opening of the charity's new North Walsham branch on Tuesday, said: 'There have been huge issues with Universal Credit in Great Yarmouth since it was introduced in May.

'If the roll-out is like Yarmouth there will be problems with landlords not receiving rent. Claimants have been going without income for several weeks and not having proper access to online services.'

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He added: 'It is important that support is to hand, we see 2,500 people coming through here in a year.

'There is a lot of hidden poverty in north Norfolk, particularly in hotspots like Cromer and the east coast area including North Walsham. Most of what we see is working families living on the margins struggling to cope with low pay and benefit support income.'

The new premises in St Nicholas Court was opened by the High Sheriff of Norfolk, Major General Sir William Cubitt.

In addition to the North Walsham advice centre, new face-to-face outreach services have been established in several new locations across north Norfolk.

Citizens Advice service coordinator Helen Daynes said: 'Claiming Universal Credit has presented problems. More people are waiting for benefit payments and having to rely on foodbanks and good will. Budgeting is a big problem for people who are not used to having that responsibility.'

North Norfolk District Council and Norfolk County Council are providing £100,000 annually to fund an information and advice service with NCA and Mid Norfolk Citizens Advice over the next three years.

District council leader Tom FitzPatrick said: 'In North Walsham the service was previously located in portable buildings which were not fit for purpose. I am delighted that the service has moved to this new central location and is now open five days a week.'