Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey MP keeps pressure on Westminster to settle Universal Credit bill with Highland Council
North SNP MP Drew Hendry is maintaining pressure on the UK government to repay Highland Council hundreds of thousands of pounds it is owed after the region was used as the guinea pig for the roll out of Universal Credit.
The Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey MP today received a commitment from the secretary of state for work and pensions Amber Rudd that the matter now has her personal attention.
Under Freedom of Information request put to the council last year, Mr Hendry discovered the local authority was, by last October, out of pocket to the tune of £2.5 million due to Universal Credit.
According to council reports, more than £640,000 of these costs were incurred because of the added time and effort it now takes to administer processes around the welfare scheme.
That includes several additional manual processes that had to be introduced to work around the failing system, the remainder of the costs relate to rent arrears and additional bad debt provisions.
Mr Hendry raised the matter in parliament on several occasions and he recently met employment minister Alok Sharma MP, alongside council officers, to demand that the money is repaid.
Previously, the local authority was told in correspondence from the department of work and pensions that it would refuse to settle the debt.
Mr Hendry said: “It really is well past time that this debt was settled by the UK government.
“The previous work and pensions minister is on record saying that no local authority should lose out financially as a result of Universal Credit, yet Highland Council continues to have to prop up the failing system with its own cash – money it can ill afford.
“In October last year, additional administration costs alone were over £640,000 – just think about the difference this money would make in our communities.
“The Highland Council benefits and welfare reform team are experts at dealing with Universal Credit, they led the pilot, and are one of the top six highest performing teams across the UK.
“They’ve also been recognised as the Institute of Revenues, Rating & Valuation benefits and welfare reform team of the year. If this leading team is incurring this level of additional costs to administer Universal Credit, one can only imagine the money other councils are going to lose as Universal Credit is rolled out further.
“Officers at Highland Council couldn’t have been clearer in their analysis of these costs. It is unacceptable that Highland Council taxpayers have to continue to pick up the bill for the UK government’s failing Universal Credit project and I will be keeping the pressure on the UK government until this money is paid back.”
The introduction of the welfare system in the Highlands has been blamed for the spike in demand for food banks across the region, including in areas where previously there had been none.