Saturday, January 25, 2020

Universal Credit claimants forced to rely on food banks as rent arrears treble

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New research published today reveals the government’s flagship Universal Credit scheme is causing significant anxiety and leaving many claimants reliant on the generosity of food banks to get by.

Research commissioned by Community Housing Cymru (CHC), funded by the Oak Foundation, explored the experiences of Welsh claimants in dealing with the many pitfalls of Universal Credit, which is replacing a number of existing state benefits with one single monthly payment.

The report found that delays of up to 8 weeks before claimants received their first payment caused significant anxiety and led to several people turning to food banks, while others often had to rely on the support of friends and family to make ends meet.

Some claimants also lacked the confidence or literacy to communicate problems paying rent with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) and their landlords.

Many who took part in the research wanted more communication between their landlord and the DWP, as they had no way of knowing if rent increase charges had been taken into account as part of their new UC payment.

Average rent arrears in the UK is around £131, but this more than trebled to a shocking £450 among the Universal Credit claimants who participated in the research, potentially leaving them at risk of eviction and homelessness.

Stuart Ropke, Chief Executive of Community Housing Cymru, said: “This report is the first of its kind about the impact of Universal Credit (UC) from tenants’ perspectives, uniquely undertaken by tenants themselves.

“CHC’s members are actively working to mitigate the impact of UC and, while it’s heartening to read the praise for support staff from tenants, there is a lot we can learn from this research.”

He added: “UC has created a vacuum between tenants and landlords. Under the current system, many landlords do not know if their tenants are on UC and are therefore having to pay their rent themselves. They are often only alerted to the fact that they are on UC when they fall into arrears.

Paul Langley, Head of Business Development for CHC’s Your Benefits are Changing project said: “We currently do not have automatic access to information about which tenants are on UC and we are working with the DWP on a solution to improve this.

“The landlord portal, once rolled out, will improve data sharing to enable a personalised approach which is essential to ensure that we support tenants moving on to UC.”

Amanda Protheroe, one of the report’s authors, added: “Our hope is that this report reflects the experiences of tenants who are dealing with the issues around Universal Credit.

“Tenants were clear about issues and barriers to their communicating with both the DWP and their landlords but were most keen to discuss solutions.

“The overarching message was around the quality of relationships tenants had with these organisations with kindness being mentioned as something the tenants really valued.”

The report comes just weeks after MPs announced the launch of an official inquiry into universal credit, as mounting evidence shows the new system is leaving thousands of low-income claimants facing eviction and dependent on food banks to feed themselves and their families.

Announcing the inquiry, Frank Field MP, chair of the work and pensions committee said: “Huge delays in people receiving payments from universal credit have resulted in claimants falling into debt and rent arrears, caused health problems and led to many having to rely on food banks.”

He added: “It is bad enough that UC has a built-in six-week wait between someone applying and receiving their first payment, but we have heard that many have to wait much longer than this.

“The adverse impact on claimants, local authorities, landlords and charities is entirely disproportionate to the small numbers currently claiming UC, yet Lord Freud has told us he thinks it will take decades to optimise the system.

“We have therefore felt compelled to investigate UC yet again. We will examine what its impact is on claimants and those local bodies which deal with them, and what government needs to do to ease the pressure on those worst affected.”

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