Charities and politicians are calling for the Government’s all-in-one benefit to be scrapped after figures showed Universal credit claimants in Northampton owed twice as much rent as those the old-style system.
Housing charity Shelter is among those now calling for the end of Universal Credit (UC) after the shock figures were obtained in a nationwide JPI Media investigation.
Here in Northampton, 551 UC claimants are currently in arrears with their council house rent, even though the all in-one-benefit was only fully rolled out in the town at the end of 2018. The claimants owe a combined total of £288,513 in those arrears.
But what is probably more startling is how those on Universal Credit compare to households still on housing benefit.
Claimants will only transfer onto the new system once they have had a change in their personal circumstances – which in some cases can be moving home or the death of a partner.
Some 1,445 households still claiming the old-style housing benefit are in arrears – but the figures show that they owe half as much as their UC counterparts in Northampton.
Universal Credit claimants in Northampton, on average, owe the borough £523 each compared to £281 for those on housing benefit.
Charities and politicians around the country say this is a clear indicator that UC is pushing households towards greater debt, poverty and even homelessness.
Stephanie Kleynhans, policy officer at Shelter, said the five-week wait people face before getting their first Universal Credit payment, as well as administrative errors, “can mean people going without an income for weeks on end”. She said: “Our services are telling us quite regularly that they are seeing a lot of problems with Universal Credit that could put people at risk of rent arrears or homelessness.”
The figures obtained by JPIMedia, owners of the Chron, show that 27 UC-claiming families have even been evicted from their council houses in Northampton since 2016.
Universal Credit was fully rolled out in Northampton on November 14 last year replacing housing benefit, income support, jobseekers allowance, employment and support allowance, child tax credit and working tax credit.
But those who move onto the new system – either by making a new claim or by undergoing a change in circumstances – face a minimum five-week wait before they get paid.
One mother of five told the Chron that she was tempted to shoplift during that period to feed her children
Another Northampton woman who devoted her life to looking after her bed-bound husband for 25 years was left having to search for a job – aged 64 – when she was placed onto Universal Credit.
The woman, who cannot be named, last worked as a telephonist back in 1979. Back then she says the office was computer was almost the size as the row of terrace houses she now lives in.
But when her husband died just before Christmas, the 64-year-old with osteo-arthritis was told within days that she would have to go out and find work.
She had been receiving full housing benefit on her council home in the Eastern District, which had been adapted for her husband to live in with a walk-in shower and bed hoist.
She also received a carers’ allowance as her partner needed round-the-clock support.
But the entire safety net collapsed the day he died, leaving her now having to fend on just £10 a week after her.
Five days after the death she was told that, in order to claim Universal Credit, she would have to prove she was trying to find work.
“I just feel sorry for anyone that’s having to go through this,” she said.
“If like me you can’t use technology or even a small amount, or have access to it I would say it’s impossible.”
Our investigation has also unearthed a number of other flaws - including difficulties in filling out the online form in the first place.
According to the Government’s own research, nearly half of claimants were unable to register their claim without help on the form itself.
Yet half-a-million calls to the Government’s official UC helpline went unanswered in the first three months of this year.
Millions of claimants also lose out on income after switching to UC.
Shelter says the housing proportion of the new benefit, for example, does not cover 97 per cent of modest two-bed houses.