PEOPLE in the Highlands are attempting suicide because of the distress universal credit is causing them.
This was just one of many worrying cases heard at crisis talks held in Inverness as campaigners battle to have the controversial benefit system halted.
A summit on universal credit, thought to be the first in Scotland, was held by Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey SNP MP Drew Hendry to bring together people who are trying to help those plunged into poverty through the new system.
As well as complicated online forms, claimants automatically face a minimum six-week benefits freeze when they apply or even report a change of circumstances – but many people have reported waiting much longer for their first payment.
Around 4500 people in the Highlands are on universal credit and this has been blamed for spiralling rent arrears as Highland Council is now owed more than £1.6 million and private landlords have evicted tenants who were unable to pay.
At the summit at Merkinch Community Centre, Susan Lyons from mental health support organisation Hug (Action for Mental Health) said people are so scared of eviction and debt that they are attempting suicide.
"A letter went out recently from one of the housing associations advising people that they were likely to be in rent arrears and on the same day we had four reports of people going into a mental health crisis as a result of receiving that letter," she said. "When I say mental health crisis I’m talking about people who can no longer function, who are at risk of suicide and self harm, who are absolutely terrified.
"These are the most vulnerable people in our society and they are being made worse, to the point that some of them are actually attempting suicide."
Universal credit, which replaces six benefits including housing benefit and working tax credits with a single payment, was first trialled in Inverness in 2013. It was then extended to the surrounding area before being rolled out Highland-wide in July.
Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson said 2500 people have been given crisis grants while they wait for universal credit and criticised those who say universal credit claimants should "just get a job".
"In my time as a councillor I have seen problems with benefits and rent arrears but never as acute as they are now," she said. "What are we doing as a nation that we are letting people get into this state? We are loading people with debt so by the time they even get universal credit they are already in debt. I’d like to remind people that all of us could go through this.
"We could get a divorce, disability, illness or redundancy. That’s how far you are from universal credit, it could happen to any of us."
Highlands and Islands SNP MSP Maree Todd accused the Westminster government of "using benefits to punish", while Elaine Donnelly of the Macmillan cancer support and Citizens Advice Bureaux partnership said cancer patients are even dying before their universal credit is paid.
"Not one of the people who have come to us have had a good experience on universal credit," she said.
"The first person I dealt with on this was recovering from breast cancer. I have been an adviser for 19 years and I couldn’t tell her how to apply. I had no way of supporting that client.
"My staff and I are bereft, we are on our knees and just so frustrated. It’s not right that people who are terminally ill have to use food banks.
"It’s not right that people who are terminally ill are dying before their universal credit claims are fully processed, they are dying thinking they are in rent arrears through no fault of their own."
Mr Hendry had also invited all UK government ministers, including Prime Minister Theresa May, and representatives from parties outwith the SNP but none were able to attend, although an operations manager from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) did.
Speaking after the event, the MP re-iterated calls for the roll out to be stopped.
"Today was a great opportunity to hear people across the spectrum who are all experiencing the same problems," he said. "People are facing sheer trauma and distress because they are struggling with a flawed and broken system. It needs to be halted so that these problems can be ironed out before they are forced upon any more people."
He also thanked the universal credit claimants who agreed to speak out: "I really want to commend the bravery of the people who spoke out about the distress they faced because it’s an incredibly difficult thing to stand up and speak publicly about it.
"It’s hard to imagine when you live relatively comfortably that some people are living on three slices of bread a day.
"This is just a snapshot, there are hundreds more who for different reasons won’t tell you about the hardship they have faced."
The DWP insists that universal credit helps get people back into work and that most claimants are "comfortably managing" their budgets.