Advice manager backs calls to halt roll-out of Universal Credit system in Northern Ireland

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Image: Mary McManus

Mary McManus, the manager of the east Belfast Independent Advice Centre and chair of Advice NI, has urged a halt to the introduction of the Universal Credit (UC) system in Northern Ireland. She argues in the comment article below for VIEW that “all the evidence shows that UC causes poverty, rent arrears and homelessness’. She said: “Why are we going full steam ahead with the roll out of this faulty system that will inflict so much harm?”

Universal Credit, the flagship project of Welfare Reform, is an ambitious project that aims to incorporate six means tested benefits into one, “digital-by-default” benefit. UC will have a staged introduction in Northern Ireland from September 2017 starting in Limavady. It comes to Belfast in May 2018.

In order to prepare for its introduction, staff from EBIAC took a trip to Warrington in April this year where UC was introduced in 2013. We were hosted by Steve Cullen of Warrington CAB to whom we are very grateful for his hospitality and the sharing of his time and expertise.

We had the opportunity to speak with the Local Authority Homelessness and Housing Benefit teams.

We also spoke with voluntary Tenancy Support Services and Speak Up, an advocacy organisation. UC was initially only introduced for single Jobseekers Allowance Claimants but from April 2017, UC is now “full service” in Warrington. This means that any new claimant of one of the six benefits incorporated in UC must claim UC.

We were told,

  1. Universal Credit is a Kafkaesque online system that is poorly administered by poorly trained staff making any problems that arise with a person’s claim very difficult to sort out.
  2. People are waiting up to 12 weeks for their first payment of UC.
  3. The UC system is not able to cope with a person having a change in circumstances.
  4. It is a very rigid system with people often being sanctioned. When this happens they lose all financial support including housing.
  5. It has caused rocketing use of Food Banks. People are being turned away from Food Banks as they have exhausted their allocated number of visits.
  6. It has caused a massive rise in rent arrears and evictions.
  7. Private landlords are not renting to people on UC due to the delays causing rent arrears. Insurance Companies will not insure landlords with UC Tenants. (learned since that lenders lend to landlords with UC Tenants)
  8. It has caused an increase in Mental Health Problems.
  9. Other services, such as Tenancy Support are completely bogged down with sorting out people’s UC problems and cannot offer their normal support.

In NI, we are told that we will not have the same problems due to the fact that UC will be paid bi-weekly not monthly as in GB. However, no-one will get a payment for the first six weeks and then they will only receive a payment for two weeks. That is, if everything goes smoothly. This is an online system that Department for Communities staff openly admit has not finished being built yet, hence waiting times in GB of up to 12 weeks. For those individuals and families who have no savings what are they supposed to live on during this time?

We are also told that the fact that in NI the Housing Element of UC will be paid directly to landlords and not to individual claimants will sort out the problem of rent arrears, evictions and homelessness that are rife in GB.

Bill Irvine of the Landlord’s Union in GB, wrote a letter to Neil Coulding, Director General of UC Implementation, stating, “Nearly every single tenant owes rent, either through the delay in first payment, which can take 6-12 weeks to process.” He goes on to say that where landlords have applied for the Housing Element to be paid directly to them the following problems have occurred, “Many of those applications are mislaid, take months to process or are simply ignored.”

Simply due to the delay in the first payment people will be in rent arrears in NI too, processing problems could exacerbate these arrears further.

In Warrington, we heard a tale of unnecessary misery and preventable harm inflicted upon people. Just one Google search will throw up dozens of articles painting the same picture.

All the evidence shows that UC causes poverty, rent arrears and homelessness. Why would any administration inflict that upon its people?

The Scottish Government, has called for the roll-out of full service UC in Scotland to be halted until the implementation problems are fixed.

Why are we going full steam ahead with the roll out of this faulty system that will inflict so much harm? We back this call and would urge others to do so.

An open letter to DWP Neil Couling regarding Universal Credit

https://news.gov.scot/news/call-to-halt-full-service-roll-out-of-universal-credit

• More information about the East Belfast independant Advice Centre can be found at http://www.ebiac.org/

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