STANDFIRST

THE Government's roll-out of Universal Credit will speed up from November, after it rejected calls to suspend the process while problems with the system are ironed out. Newport is the next area in line in Wales, but there are concerns about the built-in six-week delay for pay-outs for many, as Christmas approaches. ANDY RUTHERFORD reports.

A FULL roll-out of Universal Credit will begin in Newport and 26 other council areas in the UK next month.

Work and pensions secretary David Gauke confirmed last week that the process will continue, despite widespread calls for a temporary halt to tackle issues such as delays in payments.

Among those urging a slow-down were 12 Conservative MPs. While it is not unusual, in these febrile political times, to observe dissent in Tory ranks, this intervention on the eve of last week's party's conference was an indication of the level of concern about the an issue.

Trials and gradual implementation of Universal Credit have been going on for a number of years, and concerns about the impact on claimants are of a similarly lengthy provenance.

Universal Credit is a monthly payment to help with living costs, replacing six benefits - Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and Working Tax Credit.

As with any major change to the welfare system, this has stimulated passionate debate, though it must be recognised that Universal Credit as a concept is not universally opposed along political lines.

What is causing mounting concern however is its implementation, set to accelerate in the aftermath of Mr Gauke's refusal to pause and take stock.

In November, Universal Credit will be introduced in 27 council areas in the UK, covering 44 Jobcentre Plus sites.

Already implemented in two areas of Wales - Flintshire and Torfaen - it will come into effect in Newport next month.

Roll-out will reach Monmouthshire next March, Blaenau Gwent next April, and Caerphilly next May.

Built into the system is a six-week delay before first payments, and on that basis there is concern that people brought into the system in November will have a difficult and anxious few weeks in the run-up to Christmas, even if those payments are ultimately on time.

Announcing the intention to press on with the roll-out last week, Mr Gauke said he would be refreshing the guidance given to Department for Work and Pensions staff regarding advance payments and their availability to claimants in difficulty.

“Claimants who want an advance payment will not have to wait six weeks, they will receive this advance within five working days - and if someone is in immediate need, then we fast-track the payment, meaning they will receive it on the same day,” he said.

“We’re not going to rush things; it is more important to get this right than to do this quickly, and this won’t be completed until 2022."

There are those however, who fear that the introduction of Universal Credit is being rushed, to the detriment of many claimants.

* For more on Universal Credit, including eligibility, visit www.gov.uk/universal-credit

IN its report Fixing Universal Credit, published in July, Citizens Advice warned that seven million households across the UK faced financial risk if the roll-out of Universal Credit were not paused to enable problems to be tackled.

It highlighted three "significant" issues: Lack of help for people when the system fails them; people struggling to use Universal Credit because it is too complicated; people waiting up to 12 weeks for their first payment without any income.

Citizens Advice provides free, independent, confidential and impartial advice to everyone on their rights and responsibilities, and Universal Credit has been an increasing part of its workload.

In the year to September 30, it helped 1,875 in Wales with queries about Universal Credit

"The number in Wales is still relatively low, but we are seeing increases each quarter as more and more people go onto Universal Credit," Lindsey Kearton, policy advisor for Citizen's Advice in Wales..

"The main thing people come to us with is help with completing applications, and with finding out whether they are eligible (for Universal Credit)."

She highlighted issues with the support available to claimants, and problems with the waiting time.

"Built into the design of Universal Credit is a six-week wait. We are finding in Wales, and also from England, that clients are having to wait longer.

"One-in-10 is waiting more than 10 weeks for their first payment.

"Our concern about waiting is that people are just building up debts, and those with existing debts are struggling to service those debts. These issues manifest in things like increased use of foodbanks, and council tax and rent arrears.

"We are pushing for people to have a payment earlier in the process, such as part of the payment within two weeks.

Ms Kearton said there are also problems with the support on offer for those making a Universal Credit claim.

"People meant to have more one-to-one support from work coaches in Jobcentres, but that's not always happening," she said.

"There is also a helpline, but it's not free at the moment. Often people have to make multiple calls, and it is costing them."

Another issue highlighted by Citizens Advice is difficulties in completing the claim process for people seeking more than the standard element of Universal Credit.

"There can be a need to provide, for instance, proof of a rental agreement, or proof of childcare arrangements, and these can take a long time," said Ms Kearton.

"Citizens Advice expects there will be a lot of issues around Universal Credit for a long time to come."

* Citizens Advice has a detailed guide to Universal Credit at www.citizensadvice.org.uk/benefits/universal-credit

THE increased use of foodbanks across the UK is down to a range of factors, but the Trussell Trust - which runs more than 400 in the UK, including around 40 in Wales - believes evidence is emerging that problems with Universal Credit are a growing reason.

The trust's head of Wales and the devolved nations, Tony Graham, said "it is one of the biggest concerns we have currently."

"Last year the average increase in foodbank use in the UK was seven per cent, but in areas where Universal Credit had been rolled out, it was closer to 17 per cent," he said.

"We welcomed the introduction of Universal Credit. It replaces six other benefits and is intended to simplify a system that needed simplifying.

"We have endeavoured to be critical friend to the Government and to bring evidence of the problems our clients and vulnerable people in society are experiencing."

Mr Graham said "pretty much everything we warned about has come true" in terms of how Universal Credit is administered and rolled out, with the minimum six-week waiting period before first payments being "to our way of thinking, quite incredible."

"But there is also a six-day period before anything happens with a claim, so the wait is longer. The delay is frankly causing havoc, causing many people to stretch their budgets." he said.

"Support supposed to be available, but it is sporadic and can lead to problems. Claims can be made, but they get lost, and people have to start again.

"We have examples of people waiting eight-10 weeks for claims to be dealt with.

"The increase in roll-out is of great concern to us because the system is still bedding in. and we need a pause because Christmas is coming.

"It is highly likely that people will be without money through November and December, and that will cause so much stress, to increased mental health problems and challenges in families already under stress - and Christmas is already one of the most stressful times of the year.

"Many people are in low paid and insecure work, and so will struggle anyway, and if they have to walk through the minefield of a fallible system like this, it will make it worse.

"We've been trying to get the DWP and the secretary of state, to understand that there are problems with the system, that it's OK to take a pause and step back and think about the human cost, but they are unfortunately pressing ahead, and that is disappointing."

Mr Graham added that while increased help for people with mental health issues, advance payments, and better training for advisors on such payments are a good thing, they are small compared to the problem of waiting times.

Of the increase in foodbank use in Universal Credit areas, he said: "I think that's a fairly good indicator of what to expect in Wales over the next 12 months.

"Communities and businesses ought to be aware of the challenge that is coming, and our biggest question is how we ensure the sustainability of foodbanks.

"It's important to stress how much we appreciate the support people give to foodbanks, and people in Gwent are incredibly generous."

* For more on the Trussell Trust, visit www.trusselltrust.org