Universal Credit is still pushing tens of thousands into destitution, just weeks before its roll-out continues, the JPIMedia Investigations team can reveal.
The benefit is leaving an ever-growing number of people in rent arrears, with the number of claimants evicted from council houses reaching a record high.
With millions more poised to be moved onto the system, there have been calls for an urgent halt to the programme to avoid a catastrophe.
Families across Lancashire have told how they spiralled into debt after being shifted onto Universal Credit while, across the UK, information uncovered by JPIMedia Investigations reveals how more and more people are being forced into financial turmoil.
Figures obtained from 145 local authorities that still own social housing show more than 120,000 claimants are now in rent arrears totalling more than £84.5m.
On average, each owes £681, more than twice the average arrears of those on the old housing benefit system.
Evictions of Universal Credit claimants from council homes, while relatively low, reached an all-time high in 2018/19 of 514.
'IT'S AN ABSOLUTE SHAMBLES. UNIVERSAL CREDIT NEEDS TO BE HALTED AND RE-EXAMINED'
Blackpool South Labour MP Gordon Marsden’s office has been dealing with a number of cases with varying circumstances but similar consequences.
One married man with two children was moved onto Universal Credit in February but didn’t get his first payment until April, leaving him behind on his bills and using a food bank.
A mum couldn’t pay her childcare bill after her payments were stopped when her employer made a mistake while declaring her earnings to the taxman.
A single dad-of-two decided to further his career by doing a degree but, five months later, his Universal Credit payments halved, leaving him struggling.
And a self-employed man who broke his leg and was unable to work applied for Universal Credit but was told he didn’t qualify and “should have saved to cover for this type of event”.
Mr Marsden, who voted against bringing in Universal Credit, said: “It’s an absolute shambles. The minister and his officials appear to be shoving their heads under the pillow. Universal Credit needs to be halted and re-examined.”
CLAIMANTS ARE LEFT 'BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE'
Introduced as part of the Tories’ welfare reform, Universal Credit rolled six fortnightly benefits payments into one monthly instalment.
Claimants on the old system are shifted across after a change in circumstance, such as moving home.
They have to wait at least five weeks for their first payment, which charity The Trussell Trust said is “leaving many without enough money to cover the basics”.
“There are other problems with Universal Credit, but the five-week wait is one of the key reasons why we’ve seen a rise in people needing food banks where it has been rolled out,” a spokesman said.
Families can apply for an advance sum - a loan of up to 100 per cent of their estimated monthly payment to help bridge the gap – but they have to be repaid over 12 months - or 16 from October 2021.
The Trussell Trust, which runs food banks up and down the country, said people are left “between a rock and a hard place: no money now, or not enough money later?”
A 13 per cent rise in food parcels being handed out in Lancashire has also been recorded by the charity in the past year.
'SOMETIMES I CAN'T AFFORD TO EAT'
Mum-of-two Shelley Murphy, 33, spiralled into rent arrears of £2,500 after going without a benefits payment from January to March, and said her monthly sum of £560.45 doesn’t cover the £629 rent at her Bispham home.
Shelley, who lives in Meadow Close with sons Ashton, five, and Charlie, 11, is a student at Blackpool and The Fylde College’s University Centre.
Her student finance payments are classed as income by the DWP, and Shelley said she feels pressured to quit university to get a job.
She said: “I have been getting behind on my rent. I have been threatened with being kicked out. I can’t afford to pay the gas, electric, WiFi, or anything.
“It makes me feel rubbish. It makes me feel like the whole world is on my shoulders.
“Sometimes I can’t afford to eat.
“People say, ‘Quit university and get a job or stay on the dole’, but I don’t want to.
“I’m trying to do better for myself and feel like I’m being punished.”
The DWP said Shelley, who last claimed benefits in 2017, borrowed £1,500 in January and £1,300 in February to help pay her bills, and said she also gets an average of £634 a month in student finance grants.
It said: “Ms Murphy has received more than £5,400 in wages and benefits since claiming Universal Credit in January and has not told us she has rent arrears.
“Many claimants already have rent arrears when starting Universal Credit, but our research shows this falls by a third after four months.”
'IT BECOMES APPARENT THERE IS LITTLE OR NO FOOD IN THE HOUSE'
Julie Seaton, manager at The Kensington Foundation, a Blackpool charity which aims to “promote the relief of homelessness, poverty, deprivation, and distress”, said it has noted “an increase in hardship since this system became the benefit some of our crisis claimants were directed to”.
She said: “Each week we make visits to many families to assess how we may be able to assist them with furniture.
“Increasingly during these visits it becomes apparent that there is little or no food in the house, often due to the appalling consequences of a flawed benefit system.”
Mr Marsden said the notion “that there should be a simpler system for benefits is of course a good idea” but said the Government was to blame for its troubled roll-out.
“They have never got the process right,” he said.
He added: “I do think it’s down to the false exaggerated hope they had in the beginning. It’s down to a lack of investment and staff, and the failure to consult with the third sector.”
'UNIVERSAL CREDIT HAS THE POTENTIAL TO OFFER GENUINE SUPPORT'
The Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Paul Maynard, who voted to bring in Universal Credit, said he has “not noted any significant change in the volume or nature” of issues his constituents have with legacy benefits of Universal Credit.
He said: “I believe Universal Credit has the potential to offer genuine support to constituents, easing the transition from welfare to work while at the same time ensuring those who need it get the necessary financial assistance.
“The Government acknowledges there have been issues with the rollout in some areas, and the Secretary of State [for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd] has made the decision to slow the pace of transition and to make changes where they are necessary.
“This has already been reflected in the changes made to ensure claimants do not have to wait to access funds, ensuring people are given the necessary support from the moment they begin their claim.”
'OUR DATA SHOWS UNIVERSAL CREDIT IS LEADING TO INCREASING RENT ARREARS'
Sue Ramsden from the National Housing Federation, whose members provide 2.5m homes for more than 5m people in England, said: “We survey our members on a regular basis and they consistently report a high level of arrears in Universal Credit than other types of benefit.”
Hugh Owen from Riverside, one of the biggest providers of social housing, said: “Our own data shows that Universal Credit is leading to increasing rent arrears.
"Arrears for our tenants claiming Universal Credit are more than three and a half times higher than those who are not claiming UC, with average arrears of £666 for UC claimants compared to £185 for those households not in receipt of UC.
“While we have the capability to work closely with and support tenants claiming Universal Credit to help them manage their debts, many people living in the private rented sector do not have the same help or understanding from their landlord.
“High levels of rent arrears increases the risk of homelessness, especially in the private rented sector. We would like to see an end to the five-week waiting period for Universal Credit because we know this is pushing people into debt and arrears.”
BUT THE DEPARTMENT FOR WORK AND PENSIONS 'COMPLETELY DISAGREES' WITH CLAIMS UNIVERSAL CREDIT CAUSES RENT ARREARS
The DWP said it was wrong to blame Universal Credit for rent arrears.
“We completely disagree with this analysis which compares fundamentally different claimant groups,” a spokeswoman said.
“Many people claim Universal Credit after a significant life event and will join with pre-existing arrears, while those on legacy benefits are likely to have been claiming for a longer period, with arrears having reduced over time.”
She said the department had made various changes to Universal Credit to prevent people going into arrears.
This included paying two weeks of extra Housing Benefit for those moving onto Universal Credit and paying rent directly to landlords where requested.
'THIS WEEK I HAVE GOT NOTHING AT ALL'
Cleaner Kim Rabbitts said she struggled to afford the bus fare to work after being moved onto Universal Credit in February.
The 45-year-old said the five-week wait for the first payment left her short.
“I have been struggling to come to work,” Kim, of Percy Street, North Shore, said. “This week I have got nothing at all. I’m finding it really hard to get into work.
“We have just got enough food to get us through.”
Kim, who works 21 hours a week, said the five-week delay is “quite disgusting actually”.
She said she took an advance payment of £100 to help her cope, and added: “I read stories on the internet and the number of people waiting five weeks is too big. It’s the poor kids that have to suffer.”
'TAKING MY CHILDREN ON THEIR FIRST HOLIDAY LEFT ME STRUGGLING TO PAY MY BILLS'
Samantha Willis, 38, said she ended up owing hundreds in unpaid rent after being moved onto Universal Credit when she was penalised for taking her children on their first holiday.
She was shifted from the old style benefits after she took Connor, now 15, and Melody, now nine, to Majorca while on Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA).
Those on JSA are not allowed to leave the country for more than a day without having their claim cancelled, with Samantha facing a lengthy wait after reapplying, this time for Universal Credit.
Samantha, of Gateside Drive, Grange Park, said she saved with a credit union to be able to afford the holiday, and had to rely on the goodwill of friends and family to feed her children.
She was given an advance of £500, with £300 going towards paying off Brighthouse, which sells furniture, electricals, and appliances on weekly payment plans.
She said: “My mum was working at a school and she used to bring food. I made sure my kids were fed but by the third week the money was running really low and I was thinking, ‘What do we do?’”
Samantha, who said she “can’t wait to get back to work”, fell behind with rent and had to agree a payment plan that allowed her to pay off what she owed in £30 chunks - with her only recently getting out of the red.
But she said: “I’m still struggling. It’s hard. It’s very hard.”
The DWP said: “Ms Willis was told before going on holiday that her entitlement to Jobseeker’s Allowance would be affected.
“As a result, her benefits were stopped and she made a new claim for Universal Credit.”