The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is facing mounting pressure from campaigners and others, after it emerged that changes to the flagship new benefit mean that payments may no longer be automatically backdated to the date a person first lodges a claim.
Under legacy benefits claims were calculated from the date of the initial claim. But under Universal Credit, new claims may only be calculated from the date a person visits a Jobcentre to certify their claim and provide the necessary information and evidence.
Campaigners say the change has pushed some vulnerable people into debt and involuntary hardship.
Indeed, there is evidence showing that some women have even turned to prostitution because of the changes and other welfare ‘reforms’.
Meanwhile, others have turned to stealing in order to pay bills and put food on the table.
It comes as a Yorkshire MP branded Universal Credit a “jaw dropping failure”, with evidence showing that the new benefit system is leaving poor and vulnerable people in severe financial distress.
Figures suggest that Universal Credit claimants have rent arrears that are substantially greater than those who are still in receipt of legacy benefits.
A freedom of information request by JPI Media, which was sent to 140 local authorities, found that 120,000 Universal Credit claimants are in rent arrears with a total value of more than £84million.
The average Universal Credit claimant owes £680 in rent arrears and it can take several months before they reach parity… if ever.
MP Tracy Brabin said: “We simply can’t go on like this. The Tory government must urgently stop the rollout of Universal Credit before it pushes even more people into poverty.”
She added: “Rarely a day goes by without a constituent contacting my office at their wit’s end because of Universal Credit, often unable to pay their bills or even put food on the table.”
The investigation by JPI Media bebunks Government claims that Universal Credit is “a force for good”.
The investigation found that thousands of Universal Credit claimants are being plunged into debt and rent arrears, even before the new benefit is fully rolled out across the country.
Kevin Higgins, head of policy for independent advice network Advice NI, said: “If we are experiencing these unprecedented pressures now, then it is difficult to imagine what awaits us whenever we get into managed migration of legacy claimants onto Universal Credit.”
Hugh Owen, director of strategy and public affairs for Riverside, one of the UK’s largest social housing landlords, said: “Arrears for our tenants claiming Universal Credit are more than three and a half times higher than those who are not claiming Universal Credit with average arrears of £666 for Universal Credit claimants compared to £185 for those households not in receipt of Universal Credit.
“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.”
He warned that the new benefit system is putting people at risk of homelessness, and called for an end to the five-wait minimum wait that is “pushing people into debt and arrears”.
A DWP spokesperson defended the new system. “We completely disagree with this analysis which compares fundamentally different claimant groups”, they 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.”
They added that changes to Universal Credit mean claimants can receive two weeks in housing support payments while their claim is assessed, and landlords can ask for housing costs to be paid directly to them to protect tenants from the risk of homelessness.
Universal Credit replaces six existing social security benefits, including Housing Benefit and Tax Credits.