Universal Credit is starting to make its impact on the Canterbury area with the Food Bank giving out one in eight of its parcels to people transferring to this new benefit.
And Canterbury Citizens Advice, which dealt with nearly 4,000 families and individuals last year, says that Universal Credit (UC) will be its “biggest challenge” in 2018/19 and 2019/20.
There are 1,700 people, from 1,500 households, who have been put onto UC in the district since it replaced six other benefits and was rolled out for new cases in Canterbury on July 4.
Advice agencies have been concerned at its effect — particularly because it is paid monthly in arrears, unlike the previous benefits which tended to be paid weekly or fortnightly, and because there is a six-week gap before the first payment is made in most cases.
And, while some claimants can expect to receive more money under UC, there are also losers — including single-parent families.
Simone Field, district manager at Canterbury Citizens Advice, said: “The biggest challenge [for the CA] this year and next is going to be Universal Credit.”
But she added: “We have some really good contacts with the Job Centre.” The efforts of the local JobCentre have been praised by some local benefits experts.
Jane Durant, partnership manager regarding UC in Canterbury for the JobCentre, recently spoke at the CA AGM.
She acknowledged that there have been issues over checking the identity of UC claimants, but added that the JobCentre has “managed to verify the ID of everyone so far”.
Another practical problem the JobCentre has focused on is speeding up the system for paying an advance into bank accounts when people cannot manage the six-week gap or the delays which are estimated to occur in 15 per cent of cases.
She said: “We can sometimes get it into the bank account within the hour.” But she warned against taking two or three advances. “Our advice is: don’t build up a debt.”
Claimants can face complex problems which are not recognised by a rigid application system. For instance, a working mother was told to arrange for someone else to collect her child so that she could work longer hours and maximise her pay.
However, the child has learning difficulties to the extent that it was difficult for the mother to impose on someone else. In this case, the Citizens Advice was able to explain the situation to the JobCentre.
The Canterbury Food Bank gave out a total of 225 food parcels in October. The parcels went to 111 families and individuals, including 14 who were having problems with the UC transfer.
The 225 figure is 18 per cent under the monthly average of 275 over the last year, when a total of 3,301 parcels were distributed. Numbers peak in school holidays when children are at home all day, particularly over Christmas.
Peter Taylor-Goodby, trustee of the Food Bank, said: “One worrying feature of our statistics is the steady increase in the number of families needing for food parcels because they cannot make ends meet during the process of transfer to Universal Credit.
“Families are without benefit for up to six weeks during the transfer process and find it very hard to survive.”