Morecambe and Lunesdale MP David Morris has described the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) in the area as a “success”.
Addressing parliament, Mr Morris told work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd that the local Job Centre team is making a success of the controversial new benefit system.
He said: “In Morecambe, we have had universal credit for the past two years; we were one of the very first places where it was rolled out. It is a success.”
Morecambe based charities however have said that they would “beg to disagree”, while Lancaster City Council figures show that UC has had a “significant impact on tenants”, and put more people in debt.
Morecambe Bay Foodbank said that the hardship people had suffered as a result of UC is on a “huge scale”.
The full UC service was rolled out across the Lancaster district in July 2016.
From September 2016 the council said it saw an initial spike in rent arrears, which peaked in 2017.
Total council housing rent arrears levels were £332,000 in September 2016, £525,000 in September 2017, and £454,000 in September 2018.
The council said that the initial wait of several weeks for the first payment following a new UC claim, difficulties navigating the new online system, and adjustment by tenants budgeting to make rent payments remain major factors. At the start of November 2018 UC claimants in rent arrears owed an average of £480 each to the council.
Citizens Advice North Lancashire said it is “concerned to learn that Mr Morris feels that the full digital roll out of Universal Credit in the Lancaster District has been a success”.
Cheif officer Helen Greatorex said that while some claimants had benefitted, a significant number of vulnerable people have been further disadvantaged by the inflexibility of the system.
“We see some of the most vulnerable applicants in the district struggling daily under UC.
“They are facing unnecessary hardship, unable to heat and eat and getting into debt.
“Whilst claimants struggle to meet even their basic needs they face sanctions if they can’t actively seek work or breach any conditions set by the system. “For these reasons we are some way off considering universal credit a success for our clients.”
Joanna Young, chair of Trustees at Morecambe Bay Foodbank, said: “We recognise that there are many things about UC which are a very good idea.
“Simplifying an over complex benefit makes sense; but it is not properly funded and its very design is creating destitution across the UK. This should be addressed urgently and we hope that Mrs Rudd will respond accordingly.”
Morecambe based charity West End Impact said they see around 25-30 people per week who are experiencing difficulty with UC.
Coun Andrew Warriner, Cabinet member with responsibility for housing at Lancaster City Council, said: “It is without doubt that welfare reforms continue to have a negative impact on people both nationally and locally.
“Our staff have developed a great deal of expertise in navigating the UC system and adopted a more pro-active approach to rent arrears collection.”
Coupled with this and the general advice and support on offer which includes helping to access specialist money management support for our tenants, we are confident that they have a greater chance now of sustaining their tenancy and avoiding hardship.”
North Lancashire CAB said it had campaigned for and welcomed some of the changes made such as a small reduction in waiting times, and larger advanced payments with a longer period to pay these back, however it considered there is much more to do.
Helen Greatorex added: “We have been monitoring the impact of Universal Credit on our service users and find that a third of claimants have to wait between five and six weeks for their first payment and a quarter have to wait longer, perhaps as long as three months.
“Almost half have had to borrow from family and/or use food banks, while more than a quarter have not paid their rent or their gas/electricity.
“A third of claimants have had to sell or pawn their personal possessions in order to get by.
“One claimant commented “I have been waiting two weeks for my first payment and have to wait a further 5 and £125 as an advance payment is not enough to support myself for this length of time when I have bills to pay and food to buy to survive.”
Joanna Young from Morecambe Bay Foodbank added: “Mr Morris came to the Foodbank last December and we told him about our increase in numbers, which has been directly due to Universal Credit.
“The hardship that people in our area are experiencing due to this rollout has been on a huge scale.
I would be interested to understand what Mr Morris defines as ‘a success’. If it is that the numbers of people who are claiming this benefit have reduced, or that it has saved the Government money then perhaps by this measure, he sees it as a success. The fact that the local Foodbank in Morecambe is now receiving and distributing over four tonnes of food, donated by the general public every month to prevent local constituents from going without what they need in order to survive, is a symptom of how Universal Credit has impacted on this area. Again, this local generosity may be regarded as a success by Mr Morris but here at the Foodbank we would beg to disagree.
“In fact, we, along with other local charities and services, would call on the Government to listen to the many charities and agencies who have been calling for changes to the system so that people don’t have the very basic human dignity of choosing what they may eat, taken away from them.”
Chris Grover, head of sociology at Lancaster University said: “With the exception of comments from government ministers and some backbench MPs Universal Credit, the government’s flagship social security policy, has been widely criticised.
“Following a fact finding mission in the UK the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights recently described it as ‘fast falling into Universal Discredit’.
“Universal Credit has been associated with increasing financial hardship, reflected in increased rent arrears and food bank use. The reasons for this relate to the way universal credit has been designed – a five week waiting period before the first payment; the offer of loans recovered from subsequent payments for people facing hardship during that period; the ratcheting up of benefit sanctions (the withdrawing of, or reductions in, payments) and a single monthly payment.
“There is little to suggest that experiences of Universal Credit in Morecambe should be any different to this national picture. The number of emergency food parcels distributed by Morecambe Bay Foodbank, for example, increased from 3841 to 5947 between 2016/17 and 2017/18, while Lancaster City Council has noted that ‘the introduction of Universal Credit within the district has also significantly increased the levels of rent arrears and risk levels to rent collection’.
“The aim of universal is to get more people into paid work through giving them the incentive to do a small number of hours in the hope that this will lead to people working more hours.
“In Morecambe and Lunesdale the claimant count (the number of people claiming benefit) is higher (3.9 percent) than the national average (2.3 percent). “However, the proportion of people in paid work (76.2 percent) is higher than that of the national average (75.0 percent).
“The difficulty though, with focusing upon employment-related issues is that it is not clear what effect Universal Credit has on them.
“The National Audit Office, for example, notes that it cannot be argued that Universal Credit has increased the number of people in work as its effects cannot be isolated from other economic factors that act to increase employment.”