‘Disaster’ or making work pay? Lessons from Great Yarmouth in Universal Credit

Great Yarmouth Food Bank has seen a 90pc increase in use since Universal Credit was introduced in Ap

Great Yarmouth Food Bank has seen a 90pc increase in use since Universal Credit was introduced in April 2016. But the DWP said it was wrong to link the rise to the benefit changes. Picture: James Bass - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2014

It is two years since Universal Credit came to Great Yarmouth. What impact has it had on the town?

Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire - Credit: PA

Soaring demand at food banks, tenants being evicted and landlords left without rent.

These were the some of the problems when benefit system Universal Credit came to Great Yarmouth in April 2016.

The town was one of the first places in the country to test the Government's flagship welfare reform, which replaced lots of different benefits with a single payment.

Universal Credit has been rolled out across the rest of the region, including King's Lynn, Lowestoft and Dereham and is meant to be introduced to Norwich this October.

Despite the problems it has caused, Norwich City Council said it was ready for the change.

Councillor Karen Davis said: 'We've been working to ensure our residents, particularly the most vulnerable, are prepared.'

Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis defended Universal Credit Picture: James Bass

Yarmouth MP Brandon Lewis defended Universal Credit Picture: James Bass - Credit: James Bass

But claimants in Yarmouth still report problems of being overpaid some months and underpaid on others.

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And one of the biggest headaches it has caused is for tenants and landlords.

Rent arrears have surged as tenants have to wait for the first payment, leaving them without money.

Landlords report some tenants leaving without paying rent when they got the first payment.

While under the previous housing benefit system the rent was paid directly to the landlord, it goes to the claimant under Universal Credit.

Landlords can apply to get the rent directly from the DWP.

ELA chairman Paul Cunningham Photo: Nick Butcher

ELA chairman Paul Cunningham Photo: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

But they are still reluctant to take on Universal Credit tenants, according to Paul Cunningham, chairman of the Eastern Landlords Association.

He described the system as 'disastrous' for tenants and 'unworkable' for landlords.

'My members complain of poorly trained JobCentre staff who give contradictory advice, difficulty in contacting the DWP and long delays before the claims are set up for payment,' he said.

Liz Townson, from Great Yarmouth Food Bank, said the impact was still being felt.

Food bank use is up 90pc since April 2016 in the town.

But a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesman said: it was 'wrong' to link the rise to any one cause.

Landlord Jacqueline Esposito Photo: Nick Butcher

Landlord Jacqueline Esposito Photo: Nick Butcher - Credit: Nick Butcher

The DWP said claimants were now moving into work faster and staying in work longer.

They also said 'significant improvements' had been made with in the last two years.

A spokesman for Great Yarmouth Borough Council said it was supporting other councils where Universal Credit is being rolled out.

They said: 'Feedback provided to the DWP by Great Yarmouth and the four other early adopter areas resulted in the Government announcing in November some positive changes to the UC claim process, which should improve the transition process for other areas where UC is going live in the coming months.'

•'Forced into debt'

Image: DWP

Image: DWP - Credit: DWP

Jade Warren, 23, moved over to Universal Credit from Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) 17 months ago.

But last month she and her partner, who have a 17-month old daughter, were overpaid by £300, as her partner had worked more hours.

'When we tried to give them the money back we were told that we could not do so,' she said.

'They said they would have to put us into debt and then contact a debt agency to get the money back but this could take months.

'They have forced debt upon us through a mistake of their own.

'We asked if we could contact the debt agency and offer to pay back the money but HMRC told us we could not even do that as it would take months for the DWP to tell the company about our debt.

'We would have to spend months in debt watching our credit score go down.

'I went to Brandon Lewis' office. They said it was happening quite a lot.'

•The landlord

Landlord Jacqueline Esposito rents to dozens of tenants on Universal Credit.

But she said her rent arrears had increased by £4,000 a year as housing benefit is now paid direct to tenants rather than to the landlord.

To make sure she gets paid she applies to get the housing benefit element paid to her for some vulnerable tenants.

But she said: 'Over the last two years I've had issues with direct payments being arranged. Often I've had tenants who have addictions or money management problems or may have come to me with no deposit so I've always applied for the rent.'

She said under the housing benefit system, which was administered by the council, it was a 'three-way partnership' between tenant, council and landlord.

But now it can be six to eight weeks before landlords are paid.

'I have tried my best to avoid evicting people,' she added. 'Quite often the tenant is a victim of the process.'

•'Problems not gone away'

Chairman of the Eastern Landlords Association, Paul Cunningham said: 'The problems haven't gone away. 'We all knew it was going to be problematic when it was first brought in and there has been virtually no improvement in that time.

'My members in Yarmouth are reluctant at best to take Universal Credit claimants whereas prior to that if they were on housing benefit there would've been no problem.

'I know the homeless levels have gone up, we have a soup wagon we never used to have. I also know food banks in Yarmouth are overrun.

'I've had to serve more repossession notices in the last two years than the last 10.

'The people who are being victimised in all of this are the tenants through no fault of their own.'

He said for landlords, the lack of communication with the DWP was also a problem.

'You go through to a call centre and nine times out of 10 they won't discuss it with you,' he said.

•'Every month there was a problem'

Debbie, 50, from Yarmouth, went off work in November to have an operation on her foot and started claiming Universal Credit.

'All in all it is a good system but every month there was a delay,' she said.

Some months she was overpaid and on other months she was underpaid.

'The problem was my employer was not declaring my sick pay on time,' she said. 'It was late every month (the sick pay declaration) so they gave me full Universal Credit.

'I was supposed to get about £400 a month, but got £600.

'They then took it off the following month and put me into 'debt management'.' Despite numerous visits to the JobCentre in Yarmouth and calls to the DWP she said it took five months to get the correct payments.

'I was so depressed by it all,' she said. 'I was phoning them two to three times a day. It was all over the place.

'Every single month there was a problem.'

•The MP

Universal Credit was brought in under the Coalition Government to simplify welfare by putting different benefits into one payment.

Yarmouth's Conservative MP Brandon Lewis said it had brought 'fundamental change to the welfare system' by making sure work paid.

'Studies have shown Universal Credit claimants are more likely to move into work than claimants on Jobseeker's Allowance (JSA), and that they do so faster,' he said.

He said it gave claimants more responsibility over managing their finances.

Mr Lewis said changes had been made to address complaints about payments not being made fast enough.

The seven-day waiting period was removed in February so entitlement starts on the first day of the application.

He asked anyone in Yarmouth having problems with Universal Credit to contact his office on 01493 854550 or office@brandonlewis.co

•What the DWP says

The DWP said 'significant improvements' had been made to Universal Credit since it was introduced.

A spokesman said: 'Universal Credit lies at the heart of our commitment to help people improve their lives and under it people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer compared to the previous system.

'We've made significant improvements, such as removing the seven waiting days, paying two weeks' extra housing support for claimants moving onto Universal Credit and increasing advance payments to 100pc.

'Landlords can also apply to have rent paid directly to them if their tenants are in arrears.'

They said landlords who could show evidence a tenant was in two months' arrears would get a payment which helped reduce the risk of arrears.

The DWP added it had set up a 'Landlord Portal' that allows social landlords and DWP to share information more easily.