The Government is set to press ahead with the roll-out of Universal Credit in Fife before Christmas – despite widespread concerns it will impact badly on many local families.
It will begin on December 6, and any new claimants could face a wait of up to five weeks to get any money, leaving them without access to income across the festive season.
There are now fears some people will face eviction as they cannot pay their rent, and foodbanks could be swamped with pleas for help.
Campaigners, including churches, community groups, trades unions and politicians, wanted the Government to delay the roll-out until the New year.
The Press asked David Gauke, the Minister for Work and Pensions – the man who could order a halt – a number of questions.
We got no specific response.
Instead, his PR team sent a copy of his comments from Hansard after the House of Commons was updated on changes made to Universal Credit in last week’s budget. Fife is the only Scottish region on the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) December roll-out.
Campaigners wanted that pushed back to January, but there is a “firebreak” planned for that month – in other words, the rollout is taking a break, resuming again in February, running right through 2018.
With Universal Credit paid in arrears, it means over 1000 Fifers could face immediate hardship across the festive season.
And that could rise as 2500 are added each month through the roll-out programme next year.
Last week, the Government cut the payment delays from six to five weeks, and extended the period of time claimants can pay back any loan they may get.
But the moves won’t come into effect until next year, and campaigners argue they failed to grasp the seriousness of the situation facing some new claimants.
Lesley Laird said, MP for Kirkcaldy said: “Reducing the first payment from a six-week wait to five merely tinkers at the edges of a system which is fundamentally flawed and fails the very people it was designed to help.”
She recently hosted a round-the-table summit featuring a host of agencies – citizens advice, Gingerbread, Job Clubs, and foodbanks – to plan a route map of the help available to new claimants.
“This will hit like a brick,” said one.
As well as managing the impact on individuals and families, there are serious concerns over getting people registered properly to ensure there are no further delays in their applications – the process is done online, and that could be a barrier to many who don’t have the IT skills or access necessary, or indeed, the correct ID forms.
While the concept of Universal Credit is accepted in general, the way in which it has been rolled out has sparked major concerns across the community.
The Resolution Foundation – a non-partisan organisation that works to improve the living standards of those in Britain on low to middle incomes – said it was “a prize worth fighting for” but that it needed to fix its “major design flaws’’ to improve work incentives for lone parents and second earners.
Some changes came in last week’s Budget.
The Government conceded to concerns over the waiting time, and cut it from six to five weeks, and doubling the time to pay back any loans from six to 12 months. In April, it will change how claimants in temporary accommodation get support for their housing costs.
Mr Gauke told the Commons: “We must remember that Universal Credit is aimed at supporting those out of work to move in to work, and, once in work, to progress and increase their earnings.”
He said the changes added up to a “comprehensive package that responds to concerns raised inside and outside the House, adding: “We have a clear objective – to ensure that as many people as possible get the opportunity to work, and to maximise their potential to better their circumstances.”
He insisted the roll-out was in a “steady and considered manner” and one that would “positively transform lives.”
It is a view that sits at odds with the experience of third sector agencies working directly with people on benefits.
For them, the changes don’t go far enough, and the timing of Fife’s roll-out remains deeply troubling.
“No-one has anything good to say about Universal Credit and how it has been rolled out,” said one.
One of the areas of concern to the team at Ms Laird’s office is how Universal Credit will impact on people already working.
For the first time in their lives, they may now be dragged into the benefits system.
People whose lives suddenly change – a relationship break-up, a new baby, a child turning five – all spark possible changes to benefits which, up until now, have been seen as a top-up.
With that ethos changing, they too could find themselves in the Universal Credit system.
Campaigners argue that jobseekers have to prove they are actively seeking work as part of the commitment they sign with the Job Centre – but are perplexed at what someone already in work is meant to do when they meet their job coach as part of the new system.
A parent who finds themselves on their own may also be impacted.
They say there is a “huge impact” ahead on people with no previous experience of the benefits system.
It’s an issue high on the agenda of the town’s MP.
Ms Laird said: “Make no mistake, while some might believe Universal Credit only affects the unemployed, hard-working parents struggling to raise a family on the minimum wage will also be transferred to the new system if they make a new claim through working tax credits.”
She says the full loans now being offered by the Government to get people through the assessment period will mask the real issue – that the roll-out is pushing people into debt while they wait on their month-long assessment being completed; debt that many can ill-afford to take on.”
“In areas where Universal Credit has already impacted, referrals to food banks have risen 30 per cent and agencies here in Fife are braced for a leap in referrals after December 6,” she added.
“Why is this being rolled out at such a critical time for families already struggling to make ends meet? At the very time of the year when charities gear up to provide critical cover and extra support for vulnerable people at Christmas, they’re now having to cope with an unprecedented wave of new requests for help.”
“The only honourable course of action for the government would be to halt the roll-out of Universal Credit now and fix the many issues that are causing misery to people who most need our support.”
We tabled a number of questions for David Gauke MP.
1 What feedback has he received specifically about the Fife roll-out date?
2 Will he consider delaying it?
3 What is his message to people going on to UC before Christmas - what assurances can he give them that they will not face eviction or additional poverty while waiting on their payment?
4 Is he confident the roll out will have no detrimental impact on people in Fife in the run-up to Christmas?
5 Would he be happy if he had relatives going on to UC on December 6?