The number of people going to Citizens Advice for help over Universal Credit has grown 88 per cent in the last three months.
In January, there were 64 requests for assistance to the charity which is based locally in Canterbury’s Westgate Hall Road. This compares to 34 such requests in October last year. The controversial benefit is creating a wide range of problems for local claimants.
While about a third (38 per cent) relate to questions of eligibility, the other issues include: the calculation of the sum due, appeals, advance payments, poor administration, the assessment of people with disabilities, fuel costs, lack of ID, the interplay with earnings and the position of people from abroad.
But the benefit — which replaces six others including Jobseeker’s Allowance and Housing Benefit — looks set to be changed in some ways.
Amber Rudd MP, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, paved the way for adjustments in January and announced that the roll-out of the benefit to 3 million existing claimants of the six benefits will be delayed. It had been due to take place this year.
Another change that is being considered answers a comment made by Simone Field, Citizens Advice District Manager in Canterbury.
Asked last year by the Canterbury Journal what one wish she had for 2019, Ms Field said: “More information to vulnerable Universal Credit claimants about the possibilities of having housing elements paid direct to landlords or the ability to split payments between couples.” This proposal is now being discussed at government level.
Managing their money while waiting for their first payment is a major issue in Canterbury, according to both Catching Lives (the homelessness charity) and the Canterbury Food Bank.
Peter Taylor-Gooby, trustee of the Food Bank, says: “There are many changes I’d like to see, but the big one is to cut down the waiting time for benefit from five to six weeks to zero so that vulnerable people don’t fall into debt that is then very hard to get out of.
“People on benefits don’t have the savings to cope with this kind of pressure or the spare income to pay off debts.”
And Graeme Solly, Project Leader at Catching Lives, advises homeless clients and says: “The biggest issue for most people is still managing the monthly payment, both the initial wait for the first payment and also the first few months whilst they adjust.
“So we advise people to request alternative payment arrangements — that is to ask if the Jobcentre will pay fortnightly for a while. And we still give out food parcels for people waiting for payment, or in process of changing from one benefit to Universal Credit.”
When asked what changes he would like to see in the Universal Credit system, Mr Solly raises similar points to those made by the Food Bank and Citizens Advice in Canterbury.
He calls for a reduction in time for the first payment and a “more proactive response from work coaches to apply their complex needs plans”. He specifies that a “more proactive response” would enable housing payments to be made directly to landlords from the start rather than waiting “for people to get into trouble and in arrears before alternative payments are put in place”.
He believes that in cases where someone has mental health issues or has been sleeping rough it will often be fairly easy to see that they could fall into cash flow problems if they receive their rental money rather than it being paid direct to the landlord.