Charities, food banks and community groups were today bracing themselves for calls as the Government’s Universal Credit systems is rolled out across the Fylde Coast.
The social security system has been heavily criticised since its introduction in 2013 for leaving people waiting for money, imposing harsh sanctions on people not looking for work, and allegedly pushing the poorest people in society into debt.
But the Tory government, which introduced it gradually across the country, said it will encourage people to get jobs instead of living on benefits that pay more.
Hardship has occurred as Universal Credit replaces Housing Benefit and the claimant is paid four weeks in arrears in the same way a salaried worker is paid.
And an initial waiting period of seven days before a claim could be made initially, and difficulties using the online system, added to this issue.
Newspaper stories have shown cases of people losing their homes and people having to top up food supplies from food banks.
Critics on the Fylde coast have been harsh. Ken Cridland, from Blackpool Against the Cuts, said: “It has been clear from the start that Universal Credit was designed to both save about £2.7bn on benefit payments and also to try to force people to look for and find work, or even to find more work than they are already doing.
“The well publicised delays of payments and the bad way things have been done has instead resulted in considerable misery for people, while also costing the taxpayer more than the benefits systems it is replacing. It is about time that someone was held to account for this. Both taxpayers and claimants should be treated with a lot more respect.”
A group of councillors from Wyre Council have blasted the way UC has been brought in.
Councillors Beavers, Fail, Shewan and Stephenson said: “This December Universal Credit will go live in Wyre and any new claims or changes to claims will automatically take families off the legacy benefits and place them on Universal Credit.
“Universal Credit is not fit for purpose. The four to six week wait for claimants to receive their benefits is unacceptable and will impact on the vulnerable and the poor resulting in Wyre children going hungry and residents’ homes being put at risk.
“The idea that all workers are in jobs where they are paid a month in arrears ignores the reality for the 1.5m workers who struggle on zero hours, insecure jobs or forced self-employment. Claimants need to be paid from day one.”
But changes have been made to the benefit. Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has announced an increase in the “work allowances” for households with children, and people with disabilities and a £1.5bn package of improvements to help with the changes.
The seven day wait was scrapped earlier this year and now claimants will get two weeks of Housing Benefit to tide them over until their first all-in-one payment and working parents can claim 85 per cent of their childcare costs. Minister for Employment Alok Sharma said: “Universal Credit is central to our commitment to help families improve their lives by moving into work. We know it’s working – with Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
“And now we are rolling it out to a wider range of people in a safe and controlled way. From today, more people, including families and disabled people, can claim Universal Credit and access the extra help it provides.”
But charity organisations on the Fylde coast are getting prepared for a deluge of calls on their services.
The Blackpool Food banks groups says staff are preparing for a sharp rise in people needing their donations when Universal Credit is up and running.
Neil Reid, 59, chairman of Blackpool Food Bank said: “The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank charity has seen a 50 per cent increase in areas where universal credit has been rolled out.
“We can’t see it being any different here than in any other part of the country.
“From April this year until now just under £500,000 of food has been given out from the food bank, which we could not afford to buy without the generosity of the public and businesses.
“With Universal Credit happening in December we are expecting demand for the food banks to increase.
“There is a bit of a myth that goes around about the kind of people who may be accessing the food banks.
“The idea is that they are not interested in working and that is just not true.
“A lot of people fall in to the category of what the government refers to as JAMS (Just About Managing).
“For example one person who came to us was a young, single mother who was desperate.
“She was working but the month was longer than her pay cheque.
“In order for her to work she had to put her daughter in to nursery and the only way to pay the nursery fees was for her to not eat for two days a week. She was distraught and also embarrassed.”
Tracy Hopkins, from Blackpool Citizens Advice in Bureau in Whitegate Drive, said: “The recent Panorama programme really demonstrated the desperation that exists when UC is administered incorrectly.
“People are finding themselves in a terrible position if they are in receipt of less money than they are entitled to.
“It is also difficult for many of our clients to manage their money when they have operated for years where rent is paid directly to their landlord.”
She said the switch to having people make a claim and manage their benefit was also a problem for many people in Blackpool.
She said: “If you think about the demographics here, you have a lot of vulnerable people and there are many here who do not have computers and find it hard to do the basic things such as setting up an email account which you need to make your claim.
“CAB nationally has found that one in four people who come to us for help making a claim spend more than a week filling it in.
“There is also an issue with self employed people claiming it. There is an assumption that after a year they will be earning at least minimum wage after a year. Here in Blackpool that is not always the case.”
Citizens Advice will be working with the DWP and Jobcentres from April thanks to Government money to support people having trouble, and Tracy said they were increasing staffing to cope.
“We will have people in the Jobcentres to help and we are hoping to start that in January. There’s no point in waiting until April only to have to sort out people’s problems then.
“But I want to say that even though this is Government funding, it will be confidential, we will maintain our independence and still hold the Government to account on issues where necessary.”
Paul Maynard MP
Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys Paul Maynard said the move to Universal Credit would simplify the whole benefits system and ensure that people would be better off in work than simply on benefits.
He said: “Universal Credit is an extremely important change to the way benefits are delivered, ensuring support is given to those who most need it and that those who can work will always be better off doing so.
“Not only does it roll multiple benefits into one single payment, the change to a live benefit has the potential to make a real difference to those whose hours and wages vary.
“In communities like Blackpool, where there are still a significant number of seasonal roles, this has the potential to simplify welfare for many people, as under Universal Credit there will be no need to re-apply for their entitlement.
“Since the summer I have been working to ensure my constituents are given all the support they need during the transition to Universal Credit.
“I have encouraged them to work with service users and with third-party and charity groups to reach the most vulnerable and ensure every individual is as prepared as they can be.
“I have also hosted two Universal Credit surgery events to ensure those constituents who require assistance have access to support.
“Following the rollout I will continue to do all I can to assist those constituents who ask for my help.”
Gordon Marsden MP
Labour’s Blackpool South MP Gordon Marsden said he had many reservations about the roll-out of Universal Credit.
He said: “People are having to get used to doing everything online – we have already had one enquiry from a constituent who was struggling with the photo ID - access to the internet could also be problematical for some people plus people with little experience of using computers could find this very difficult. Having looked at the YouTube tutorial it is not a straight forward process.”
He said he had received concerns from the mental health charity Mind in Blackpool. They said the changes will affect 3,796 people in Blackpool South alone, including 2,276 with mental health problems. They fear that when people move over to the new benefit, they will have just a month to make the new claim or face losing all benefit.
“The five week waiting time for UC to go into payment will cause many problems. Anyone having a change in circumstances will now have to claim UC wiht the potential for a lot of problems I feel particularly for those who have been found fit for work.”
But is it that bad? The Jobcentre’s Yvonne Cooper says not
From today, more people across Blackpool, St Annes and Fleetwood will use the tailored welfare system, aimed at supporting them to move into and progress within work.
Universal Credit service expands to people in and out of work, those on low incomes, families, and those with disabilities.
It replaces six benefits with one monthly payment and is already being claimed by single jobseekers.
Now from today, anyone in Blackpool, St Annes and Fleetwood who would previously have made a claim to Income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income support, Working and Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit will instead claim Universal Credit.
Yvonne Cooper, partnership manager, with Jobcentre Plus on the Fylde Coast has been working with outside organisations such as Blackpool Council, The Citizens Advice Bureau and charities to explain the system and smooth the transition.
She said it was the most significant change to the welfare state in many years. At the heart, is a desire to see more people move closer to work, into work and earn more, reducing their dependency on benefits.
She said: “Universal Credit offers tailored support, which includes more personalised help from a work coach. The new system is also more flexible, which means people can take on short-term work to develop their skills and build up their experience.
“Our staff are trained to support people throughout the claim process.
“We’d encourage anyone who needs extra help or information to come and talk to their work coach.”
The roll-out of full service means everything is done online, but the Jobcentre has computers for those who don’t own one.
People can manage their claim, including reporting changes of circumstances, check the details of their claim and find out the date of their next payment.
Yvonne said that despite being dubbed Full Service it is not a benefits D-Day. Not everyone will transfer to UC.
New claims will be made under UC and anyone having a natural change of circumstances such as moving in from another local authority area, or someone moving from a sickness benefit to a work benefit as they get ready to find a job after a period out of action. But many people will remain on the benefits they are getting until November 2020 when the final switch to UC is scheduled under a “managed migration programme”. She said: “We will sit and help people make the claim or we can refer them to our partners such as Blackpool Council or the Library where people can help.
“Citizens Advice will be taking over those duties from the council from April next year and will be able to extend the help for people having trouble coping to when they get their first payment.
“UC is meant to replicate the world of work. The majority of people going into work are paid monthly and have to prioritise paying their bills. That’s life. We expect the majority to do that and we will be there to advise and support them.
“But we accept there will always be some people who will need help with their money management.” She said there was provision under extreme circumstances to pay the housing benefit part of UC to the landlord if a person could not cope and was in danger of being made homeless. They can also pay people weekly if they struggle with temptation if they get a months worth of money all at once and have for example alcohol or gambling addictions.
People generally will have to wait five weeks after signing on to get their first money. But anyone can ask for an advance on that money to tide them over, which will be paid back over a period of 12 months.
What is Universal Credit?
Universal Credit is a single social security benefit designed to encourage people into work.
It replaces these benefits: Jobseeker’s Allowance, Employment and Support Allowance, Income support, Working and Child Tax Credit and Housing Benefit