Roll-out of Universal Credit in Norfolk is ‘disaster waiting to happen’, warns charity
- Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017
A benefit change affecting thousands of people in Norfolk is 'deeply flawed' and should be halted before it hits Norwich, a charity has warned.
Citizens Advice Norfolk claimed that the expansion of universal credit to the city next summer, in which different benefits including housing benefit are bundled into one payment, was 'a disaster waiting to happen'.
But the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said the roll-out would continue and the reforms were helping people gain control over their finances.
Great Yarmouth was chosen as one of the first places in the country to test universal credit.
It has caused huge problems in the town with tenants falling into arrears and even being evicted because of delays paying landlords the housing benefit element of it.
Landlords have refused to take tenants on the new benefit because of the delays with payments.
Chairman of Eastern Landlords Association Paul Cunningham said: 'What business would wait six to 12 weeks for money?'
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But the DWP said around 80pc of payments were made on time.
Mr Cunningham said the system had not been improved since problems were highlighted in Great Yarmouth with it last year.
'The desperation and misery that this is causing (among tenants) is beyond belief,' he said. 'These people don't have a voice.'
He called for the housing benefit element of universal credit to be given back to local councils.
In Norwich and King's Lynn universal credit has only been partially introduced. The full roll-out will happen in Norwich next year, prompting the warning from Citizens Advice.
The charity is calling for action from the DWP to ensure no one applying for universal credit waits longer than six weeks.
By 2022 Universal Credit will affect 24,000 households in Norwich and it said people had already sought help from it before the full roll-out of the service arrives in June 2018.
David Potten, acting chief executive of Citizens Advice Norfolk, said: 'While universal credit is a good idea in principle the system as it stands now is not able to properly support those in Norfolk who need it, and could even leave them worse off.
'That's why we want the government to pause its plan for roll-out so it has time to fix the underlying problems and make sure that everyone has access to the support they need to adapt to the changes.'
The charity said long waits for payments placed extra pressure on housing and people could lose their home because of delays with paying the benefit.
Norwich South Labour MP Clive Lewis said 'Never has the expression that we're all only a few pay cheques from penury been so true.
'The government's botched universal credit programme is turning into a nightmare for the increasing numbers of people who rely on it in our city.
'The government must immediately halt the roll out of universal credit to contain the misery being caused by the disastrous mishandling of this programme.'
Norwich North Conservative MP Chloe Smith said universal credit was a 'welcome step' to getting more people into work and off benefits.
But she added: 'There are challenges with all systems when they are introduced and that is why I wrote to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Gauke, about the roll out of universal credit and the impact it may have on my constituents in Norwich North.
'I have asked the secretary of state to look at what can be done to address the delays in payment of universal credit being made.'
A DWP spokesman defended the changes and said the roll-out would continue.
'The best way to help people pay their rent is to support them into employment, and under Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than the old system,' they said.
'Universal Credit gives people control over their finances, and paying their own rent is an important part of this – just like someone in work would do. The majority are comfortable managing their money but advances are available for anyone who needs extra help, and arrangements can be made to pay rent direct to landlords if needed.'
Norwich City Council is preparing for the full roll-out and councillors resolved in July to write to Mr Gauke with their concerns.
A council spokesman said: 'As well as liaising with local partners, we are learning from the experiences of other local authorities and will continue to work to make the transition as smooth as possible.'
•Falling into debt
One Norfolk mother helped by Citizens Advice fell into debt when she had her claim for Universal credit rejected by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) because their system was offline for maintenance.
The mother appealed the refusal on the grounds that she was unable to contact them due to a problem with their system but this was rejected.
She has now been served with an eviction notice from her landlord for not paying rent.
She was meant to leave the property two weeks ago but has not done so as she cannot find suitable for her and her six-year-old son.
The client is now in debt to her landlord, at risk of eviction and likely to fall further in debt, Citizens Advice said.
Another claimant in Yarmouth said he was evicted last year after delays paying his universal credit.
He fell into rent arrears of £1,000 before he was paid the benefit again.
•What is universal credit?
Universal credit was introduced in 2014 to replace six benefits with one single payment.
It is being rolled out in stages across the country and is paid monthly rather than weekly or fortnightly like the benefits it replaces.
But those claiming it report waiting for weeks to receive it and further weeks to appeal decisions to the DWP.
By 2022, it will be claimed by 95,000 households across Norfolk, including 15,500 households in Great Yarmouth.
At the moment in Norwich it is only available to single jobseekers but from June 2018 parents, couples and people who can't work because of their health who make a new claim will also receive it.
It replaces jobseeker's allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, income support, child tax credits and working tax credits.
•Have you had problems with the roll-out of Universal Credit? Contact reporter Tom Bristow at email@example.com