Published: 21/10/2017 19:00 - Updated: 20/10/2017 11:32

Calls to end universal credit 'madness' over its 'devastating' impact on Inverness

Written byIain Ramage and Emma Crichton

 

Drew Hendry
MP Drew Hendry.
A TIDE of debt directly blamed on welfare reforms has left scores of Inverness-shire tenants fearing eviction from their homes.

 

A city casualty of the benefits shake-up revealed yesterday how only the love of his children had kept him going.

Highland Council has confirmed its first eviction involving a tenant that has been claiming the widely condemned universal credit, which merged six separate benefits into a single payment.

The boss of a leading housing association has branded the reforms “degrading”.

Piloted in Inverness, universal credit has been gradually introduced over four years. About 610,000 people, in a variety of specific areas across the UK, now receive it.

Despite a bid by opposition politicians at Westminster to pause the process, it will be rolled out further to 54 more jobcentres nationally this month.

A quarter of claimants have experienced a wait of more than six weeks to receive a first payment due to administration problems.

Speaking at his Torvean Avenue council home, Ken Paterson (45), who suffers from severe arthritis, made his own passionate plea yesterday to the Prime Minister to halt the process and put things right.

He took redundancy last year and struggles on a minimum hours contract in the leisure sector. Separated from his partner, he pays child maintenance for their two children and is struggling financially.

“On top of everything else I suffer from depression and anxiety,” he said. “It’s got really bad. If it wasn’t for my children, I wouldn’t be here.

“When I went onto universal credit I was immediately put into rent arrears – that’s the way it works.

“When the PM claimed universal credit was ‘working’ I was absolutely horrified. How out of touch can she be?”

Single mother “Emilie”, who moved to the UK from France 10 years ago and lives in an Albyn Housing Society flat in Merkinch, said she faces eviction next month for unpaid rent.

It stands at £1500 – and she has been refused the benefit altogether due to the complexities of nationality.

The 30-year-old divorcee, who has paid taxes while working most of the decade she has spent in the UK, said: “They told me it was because of immigration law. I’m appealing the decision.

“Albyn have been very nice about it but how am I supposed to feed my two-year-old daughter?”

Highland Council confirmed that 81 per cent of the region’s council homes currently dependent on universal credit are in rent arrears, amounting to around £1 million.

Inverness Central councillor Richard Laird will seek support for a motion at next week’s full council meeting that highlights “the catastrophic consequences” of universal credit and urging the UK government not to extend it further.

A spokeswoman for the council said: “There are 1521 known universal credit households in Highland. One eviction has taken place of a universal credit tenant.

“If anyone is struggling to pay rent, we’d urge them to contact their landlord, our welfare support team or their local citizens advice bureau.”

Albyn confirmed that “notice of proceedings have been issued as a result of arrears caused by universal credit – the first step in a process that could result in eviction”.

As of last month, it was owed £179,948 in rent arrears, largely attributed to universal credit.

Albyn chief executive Calum Macaulay said: “It’s disturbing to see our welfare system being degraded in this fashion when there’s a wealth of evidence of the disastrous consequences for so many people.”

Cairn Housing Association, which has 1044 tenants in the Inverness area, has not evicted anyone due to the current crisis.

Alasdair Christie, manager of the Citizens Advice Bureau for Inverness and Badenoch and Strathspey, said: “Universal credit is hitting the most vulnerable, leaving them no choice but to use food banks.

“The whole system needs to be rapidly reviewed, halted and untangled.”

More than 60 per cent of Inverness MP Drew Hendry’s case work now involves universal credit.

He yesterday accused the Conservatives of “utter dereliction of duty” in their handling of universal credit.

Referencing Wednesday’s parliamentary debate on the topic, he said: “The motion to halt universal credit was won by 299 votes to 0 with all Tory MPs, bar one, sitting on their hands, abstaining.”

He has renewed his offer for the Prime Minister “and the entire Tory benches” to visit Inverness to experience the “destruction and devastation universal credit has caused to families here”.

Work and pensions secretary David Gauke told Wednesday’s debate there was a “pre-action protocol” that meant local authority housing providers should not take eviction measures against tenants where there is a source of income coming to them from the state.

Regional Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “The benefit system needs to be simplified and we need to make work pay, but not at the expense of pushing people into debt or facing eviction while they wait for monthly payments.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The best way to help people pay their rent is to help them into work. Under universal credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.

“Over time, people adjust to managing monthly payments and clear their arrears.”

As a result of political pressure this week, claimants will be able to call the government’s universal credit helpline free of charge “within weeks”.

The Prime Minister Theresa May said she had listened to criticism of charges, which can be as much as 55p per minute, and decided it was “right” to drop them.

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