THE point of any social security system is to help those who need extra support. That may be due to losing their job or any other reason which sees them lose the income they require to look after themselves and their families.

However, claiming benefits isn’t as easy as many people think. Often there are potential benefits with various conditions attached to each one. In an effort to simplify this, the Tories introduced Universal Credit. This would group all benefits together into one single monthly payment. Allegedly this would make claiming and processing benefits easier.

Yet that is certainly not what has happened. I am a member of the Work and Pensions Committee and we have become so concerned with the operation of Universal Credit that the Committee has re-launched its inquiry into how this benefit is actually working.

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One of the main concerns is the six-week wait that applicants endure before receiving their Universal Credit. The idea behind this was that applicants would have a month’s salary to fall back on if they lost their job yet this never took into account that many people, especially those in low income jobs, are not paid monthly and simply don’t have enough money in the bank to last them the six weeks. In fact, Shelter had previously carried out research which highlighted that 23 per cent of working families with children would not be able to cover their housing costs for a month if they lost their job. There is also a further problem for many applicants who may miss two monthly rent payments during the standard six week wait for Universal Credit.

The decision to include housing benefit within Universal Credit raised concerns with many social landlords. This move meant that many tenants who were not used to dealing with their rent account – because their housing benefit was usually paid direct to their landlord – could now have problems managing their rent payment.

One study found that 86 per cent of council tenants on Universal Credit have rent arrears, compared to 39 per cent of tenants overall. Some councils have even called for a suspension of the roll out of Universal Credit because of the impact on their housing budgets.

A study by East Lothian council found that Universal Credit is also having an impact on private sector landlords who are now more reluctant to let to claimants as they are not receiving housing benefit direct to them. This is putting additional pressure on councils and other social landlords trying to find accommodation for people who have been turned away by private landlords.

Some of the evidence reported to the Work and Pension Committee also revealed that those who were previously in arrears are now finding any arrears caused by delays with Universal Credit is resulting in eviction action being taken by landlords.

There are further problems when the housing cost element of Universal Credit is delayed beyond the standard six-week period, resulting in even more pressure on both tenants and landlords. Although there is provision within the Universal Credit procedures for landlords to receive the housing costs payments direct from the DWP, there is a further time delay before this happens, further escalating arrears and potentially incurring some form of legal action or costs against the benefit claimant.

The situation for people in emergency accommodation is even more serious. Evidence from Croydon Council to the Work and Pension Committee highlighted widespread rent arrears accrued as a result of late Universal Credit payments. This council found that rent collection from Universal Credit claimants in emergency accommodation fell from 91 per cent to 59 per cent, resulting in an annual cost of £2.5 million.

Those requiring emergency accommodation are often some of the most vulnerable in our communities, they may be fleeing domestic violence, have mental health issues, be single parents or not even have English as their first language – and these are the people hardest hit by including housing costs within Universal Credit.

It’s not just the housing element of Universal Credit that is raising concerns about the implementation of this policy. We have had reports of delayed payments, well beyond the standard six-week period, claimants being forced to choose between job interviews and benefit signing on dates and even problems with overpayments when the DWP try to recover such payments (as a result of their errors) at the maximum rate of 40 per cent as quickly as possible, sometimes without even informing the claimant that their benefit is being reduced.

Universal Credit was meant to make life easier for claimants but its implementation seems to have failed to match those aims. However, in Scotland there are some changes proposed by the SNP Scottish Government which may alleviate some of the issues highlighted above.

The Scottish Government only has some limited administrative powers over Universal Credit but they intend to use them to give claimants the choice over having their payments twice monthly – rather than monthly – as well as allowing tenants to have their housing element paid direct to all landlords. These changes can have significant benefits for claimants and have been welcomed by many third sector and housing organisations who realise that this will ease a lot of pressure on the rental incomes of many social landlords as well as helping claimants to be more financially secure. The Scottish Government is consulting on how best to implement these changes but the initial reaction of many housing providers has been positive and supportive of the proposals.

Claimants are under pressure with Universal Credit. It is leaving families struggling to afford the essentials and many are relying on foodbanks to survive. It is clear that whatever the stated intentions of the policy are, the rollout of Universal Credit is having a negative impact on those who rely on benefits and even on the wider social and private housing sectors. Fortunately, the SNP Scottish Government seems to have found a way of using its limited powers to reduce some of the concerns but they don’t have the powers to solve all of the problems created by Universal Credit.

The Work and Pensions Committee has submitted a series of questions to the employment minister Damian Hinds and has called the former welfare reform minister Lord Freud to answer questions on the rollout and impact of Universal Credit. As part of our re-launched inquiry into Universal Credit the committee is looking for written submissions from individuals or organisations who have experience of how the system works. The deadline for comments is March 20 and more information can be found on the committee’s webpage.