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Universal credit 'must be halted' argues Scottish social security minister after Inverness meeting

By Emma Crichton

Social security minister Jeane Freeman (left) and Maree Todd MSP in discussion following the universal credit meeting.
Social security minister Jeane Freeman (left) and Maree Todd MSP in discussion following the universal credit meeting.

HOW many people have to suffer before the UK Government freezes the roll out of problematic new benefit changes, a Scottish minister has asked.

The social security minister, Jeane Freeman, made her comments during a visit to Inverness where she heard of people going hungry and being plunged into debt as a result of universal credit.

The city, along with Nairn, Badenoch, Strathspey, Wester Ross and Ullapool, was one of the first places to feel the force of the new single benefit when a trial began last year. It replaces Jobseeker’s Allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, child tax credit, working tax credit and housing benefit, and will be rolled out gradually across the UK over the coming years.

Claimants say they have been plagued with problems since the trial launched – from the complicated online application to a six-week benefits freeze any time a change of circumstances is reported.

On Monday Ms Freeman attended a working group of Highland Council, Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) and housing associations and was shocked by the hardship people have been left in.

“I heard a lot of detail about the practical difficulties of the roll out and the impact it has, not only on individuals but the local authorities and housing associations,” she said. “The Scottish Government has already asked the UK Government to halt the roll out until they get these problems fixed.

“Online is just one part which is causing problems because not everyone is confident working online. The information being asked for isn’t always clear and in many places in the Highlands you can easily lose signal. Even what can be done on the phone costs money and if benefits have been frozen money is something people don’t have.”

Highland Council is now owed more than £700,000 in rent arrears from people on the new benefits system, an increase of 82 per cent since September last year.

Universal credit is part of a wider welfare reform and that the UK government claims is an easier way to claim which will also save taxpayers’ money but Ms Freeman said it is putting more strain on other public bodies.

She added that the Scottish Government has spent more than £400 million mitigating the impact of the reform, including the controversial bedroom tax.

“I’m really concerned about the roll out extending,” she said. “Inverness and East Lothian are the two areas which have experienced Universal Credit for the longest and they are both having problems.

“What is clear to me is that the UK Government is not listening. They don’t want to hear that the system isn’t working or about the harm it is doing.”

Former Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey MP Drew Hendry, who is seeking re-election on June 8, set up the working group last year to help people struggling with universal credit but Monday’s event was chaired by Highlands and Islands MSP Maree Todd, as Mr Hendry is not currently serving as an MP.

Ms Todd pointed out that universal credit is damaging everyone claiming benefits, from working people to the terminally ill.

“The worst affects I have heard are on people who are terminally ill,” she said. “They may have six months or less to live and spend those last months of their lives worrying and navigating an impossible system.”

Ms Freeman, along with Mr Hendry and Ms Todd, have called for the roll out to be halted until problems are fixed, adding that the process is not due to be completed until 2025, giving the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) time to fix the issues.

A DWP spokeswoman said payments are made in a similar way to wages but support is available to anybody struggling.

“Universal credit payments mirror the way many people in work are paid,” they said. “The majority of claimants are confident in managing their money and we work closely with local authorities to support those who need extra help.”

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