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Life on universal credit - no food and relying on hand-outs

By Emma Crichton

Inverness MP Drew Hendry says more than 100 people have come to his office with worries over universal credit.
Inverness MP Drew Hendry says more than 100 people have come to his office with worries over universal credit.

A NEW benefits system has sparked a spate of cries for help from people left in desperate hardship in Inverness.

Tearful residents have flooded one MP’s office with harrowing tales of life on the new universal credit – including one toddler’s parent who was left without money, electricity and food after they were cut off for six weeks without explanation.

Delays to payments have also forced others to sell beloved possessions, visit food banks and rely on hand- outs from family, neall while grieving for a spouse.

And there are fears that many more people are suffering in silence, unaware that help may be available.

Inverness was one of the few places in the UK picked to trial the full universal credit roll- out, a single benefit to replace Jobseeker’s Allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit.

The controversial system has been blamed for people losing their homes after they had their benefitsfrozen for something as simple as reporting a change of address.

All new claims or changes in circumstances spark an automatic six-week freeze which can continue even longer if there are problems processing the application – leaving some penniyless and unable to feed their children or pay their rent.

And every Highland Council tenant who claims universal credit has now fallen into arrears, leaving the local authority with an budget hole of more than £700,000.

One mother had her money frozen when her husband died and had to battle with call centres, rising debts and no money while grieving.

“Live service” universal credit is currently applicable all over the Highlands and only applies to new claims but “full service” is currently being trialled in Inverness. The full service is expected to be rolled out across the region in July.

Drew Hendry, MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, has been campaigning to halt the process going any further until the problems are ironed out.

He said more than 100 constituents have visited his office with issues relating to the benefit, some in tears with nowhere else to turn.

Last week he led a debate in Westminster when he warned there were countless others struggling without help.

“I was told that would provide an opportunity to iron out all the problems and difficulties to make sure there were none when it came to full service roll- out, but I am afraid that has not been the case,” he said.

“The problems have not been ironed out, and the situation is causing pain, anxiety and hardship for people in my constituency,” he said..

“My office alone has seen more than 100 cases involving issues with universal credit. That is just us, the number does not include the other agencies involved or. The number does not cover the many, many more people who are not getting any help at all because they do not know where to turn.”

“One constituent of mine who contacted us waited for six weeks without any money. He had to eat at a food bank and to go for days without electricity, all with a two-year-old living in his house. That is not acceptable and he did not even get any explanation of why that happened.”

Some of the problems associated with universal credit, other than the six-week freeze, include people having to travel long distances to job centres, struggling with complicated online applications, paid-forremium-cost helplines and being unable to phone or go online as their phone or internet has been cut off due to arrears.

Alasdair Christie, manager of Inverness, Badenoch and Strathspey Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) said his Academy Street office often has queues spilling on to the pavement as more and more people are transferred to the new system. He branded universal credit “the biggest issue to happen in years”.

“CAB, particularly in Academy Street, has been overwhelmed with people struggling to cope with universal credit,” he said.

“People just don’t know how to deal with it so more and more of them are seeking help with us. It is not uncommon for us to have a queue out the door.

“It is the biggest issue put on the Highlands by a government for a number of years.

“It is an extremely complicated system so a lot of people need help just to apply in the first place, then they have to deal with the freeze.

“Also a lot of people don’t have a computer at home or the skills and knowledge required to upload various documents, so they don’t even know where to begin.”

Mr Christie added that there is no one type of person seeking help and that the change is hitting people from all walks of life.

“We have everyone in from families with young children and single people,” he said.

“It is not just the unemployed,” he said. “A lot of working people are on universal credit because it includes child and working tax credits.

“In fact a lot of people who come in to us, often referred to as the working poor, have two or even three jobs. They just need a bit of help with their rent, or tax credits but because they have multiple jobs it makes getting all the information on the application very difficult.”

The roll- out is affecting other areas of the country, leading Angela Constance, Scotland’s secretary for communities, social security and equalities, to back calls for a “complete and immediate halt to the full service roll-out”halt.

“I am requesting a complete and immediate halt to the full service roll- out of universal credit in Scotland, which is having such an appalling impact on people across the country,” she said.

“It is clear that the system clearly isn’t working and the UK Government is not prepared to make the necessary changes,.” she said.

“The six- week delay in receiving a payment, with longer delays for some, is a completely unacceptable situation and one which has the potential to push low income households into further hardship in Scotland.”

A spokeswoman from the Department for Work and Pensions said: defended the controversial new system.

“Our research shows that the majority of universal credit claimants are comfortable managing their budgets and we’re working with local authorities to ensure people get the extra support they need.,” she said.

“Claims to universal credit can be made online, in jJob centres and there are provisions in place for people living in rural areas, including postal claims and reimbursing travel expenses where appropriate.”

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