Caroline: Brighton a “canary in the Universal Credit coalmine”

Caroline Lucas MP has called on the Government to consider Brighton & Hove a “canary in the coalmine” and halt the full rollout of Universal Credit nationwide.

The Green MP for Brighton Pavilion has heard from dozens of constituents facing delayed payments, mounting debts and even eviction since the Government’s flagship welfare regime was introduced across the city in March.

Leaked documents revealed yesterday that ministers are likely to delay a nationwide rollout scheduled for next year, suggesting they are beginning to listen to concerns about the scheme’s impact.

The Welfare Rights team at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project is backing Caroline’s call after supporting more than 200 people with Universal Credit applications since March. The team said they are “extremely fearful about the full rollout of Universal Credit” and highlighted stark council figures on its impact.

A report on the introduction of Universal Credit in the city by Brighton & Hove Council officers showed:

  • By the end of March 2018, 68 per cent of council tenant households on Universal Credit were in rent arrears – compared with 17 per cent of households not affected.
  • Vulnerable claimants (in particular those with disabilities, mental health difficulties literacy issues or whose first language is not English) have been struggling to maintain their Universal Credit claims.
  • Around 14,000 people in Brighton & Hove are currently without access to the internet. Of those, 11,000 say that nothing would motivate them to use the internet. Around 38,000 residents don’t have the skill to complete an online form. 
  • Claimants are having their council tax reduction recalculated frequently, as a result of changes to their Universal Credit claims. This has increased the workload of the council staff involved and also resulted in confusion and uncertainty for claimants.

In response to the Government’s plans to extend Universal Credit to existing claimants, Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project submitted a detailed consultation response calling on ministers to:

  • Delay the start of the full rollout until sufficient changes have been made to the system so that Universal Credit is no longer causing additional hardship for vulnerable claimants.
  • Automatically transfer existing benefit claimants to Universal Credit, rather than having to make a fresh claim when notified by the Department for Work and Pensions. 
  • Fully compensate severely disabled people who have already lost out through claiming Universal Credit.

Caroline Lucas MP said: “Brighton & Hove is a canary in the Universal Credit coalmine. People across our city – who have been forced through an ill-conceived experiment of the Government’s flagship attack on the poorest – have been plunged into debts and in some cases kicked out of their homes because of this disastrous policy.

“Ministers must listen to Brighton’s experience and urgently halt the rollout of Universal Credit to prevent millions more suffering in the name of their ideological assault on welfare.”

Richard Jaycee from Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project said: “Since Universal Credit full service was introduced in Brighton & Hove, the Welfare Rights team at Brighton Unemployed Centre Families Project has supported 198 clients with applying for and maintaining their Universal Credit claims.

“We have encountered several issues with the implementation of the system and together with other local advice agencies we have contributed to the city-wide assessment of the impact. We are aware of the damning report of the National Audit Office, which identified many problems caused by the implementation of Universal Credit so far, and our experience has been in line with this criticism.

“Our comments on the draft regulations are based on our experience and the experience of our vulnerable clients with Universal Credit so far. As a result, we are extremely fearful about the full rollout of Universal Credit.”

Case study: NG from central Brighton

NG needed to make a new claim for housing benefit when the council placed her in temporary accommodation. Her disability means she needs an overnight carer to stay regularly, so she submitted an Overnight Carer form to request the two bedroom rate for housing.

The Universal Credit service phone line incorrectly told her she needed to fill in a form to assess her ability to work before she could be granted an Overnight Carer award. NG’s ability to work has nothing to do with her overnight care, and she already receives PIP and has been awarded a Limited Capability for Work and Work Related Activity allowance.

More than eight months after submitting the form, NG was still waiting for a decision on whether she will receive enough support to cover the second bedroom she needs – and was living in severe financial hardship with mounting rent arrears and was facing eviction.

Only after BUCFP made repeated complaints to the relevant authorities was NG’s case finally resolved in recent weeks.

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