Dozens of local people have been getting in touch with me, desperately worried about how they’re going to pay their rent or buy food because of severe delays getting their Universal Credit payment. One woman, the full-time carer for her ill mother, told me she had waited over 2 months for her money, was struggling to pay her rent and was frightened about being evicted. Another woman told me that almost 8 weeks after applying for UC she was still without any payment, couldn’t pay her bills, had mounting debts and was struggling to provide for her 4 children on just £247 a month. Every time she rang the Department for Work and Pensions she had to wait 2 days for a response. But waiting 2 days is not an option when you have 4 children to feed.
These experiences are by no means the exception. 5,198 households in Camberwell and Peckham have been moved onto the Government’s shambolic UC scheme.
UC was intended to simplify the system – turning benefits into a single monthly payment, replacing the multiple benefits people receive, including Housing Benefit, Income Support, Working Tax Credit and Jobseeker’s Allowance. But far from simplifying the system the Tories’ poorly designed scheme has included an in-built 6 week wait for money. No one receives full payment before this - one in four people wait longer than 6 weeks and one in 6 claimants have not been paid anything at all even 6 weeks after the payment is due.
Going 6 weeks without money has forced many families in Southwark into crisis, with many having to turn to foodbanks. Pecan, a Peckham-based foodbank, reports a 94% increase in the number of people referred to them between January and March 2017 compared with the same period last year and tell me the main reason for this is UC.
For all the rhetoric of Theresa May’s first speech on the steps of Downing Street about supporting families who are ‘just about managing’, Universal Credit is the latest in a long line of Tory benefit changes making families in Southwark worse off – including the continuation of the cruel Bedroom Tax, cuts to Child Tax Credits for families with 3 children and changes to disability support. In fact her government continues to hit the most vulnerable families hardest - research by the charity Child Poverty Action Group shows that single parents are disproportionately hit by UC. Working single parents in Southwark will lose £800 a year by 2020 and some are expected to be over £2,000 worse off.
Southwark was one of 6 pilot areas for UC and serious warnings were raised from the outset. As far back as 2013 Council Cabinet member, Cllr Richard Livingstone, warned “the DWP needs to go back to the drawing board or it will have devastating consequences for vulnerable tenants and landlords alike”. The Government refused to listen and now Southwark are once again warning that people are facing extremely long waits for rent and are falling into arrears. The council tell me they don’t know why it’s taking so long for housing costs to be paid, “as a landlord we are very much in the dark”.
At Tory Conference last week Ministers said they would ensure more people are given advances but this will be nowhere near enough to address the problems with UC and Labour are calling for an urgent halt to the rollout.
Even the former Tory Prime Minister John Major and 20 Tory backbench MPs are backing our call. It’s time for Theresa May to stand by her words, show she is listening to those affected, charities and colleagues and end this disastrous UC rollout to protect yet more vulnerable families from slipping into crisis.