A HIGHLAND MP claims the Universal Credit system of paying benefits is in crisis and is calling for its rollout to be halted immediately.

Drew Hendry says more than 40 per cent of his caseload relates to the controversial replacement for six benefits – Income Support, Jobseekers' Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (both incomed-based), Child and Working Tax Credits and Housing Benefit.

His constituency includes Inverness, one of the original pilot areas for the scheme, which is designed to digitise the process of claiming and give claimants an element of money management. Those in some areas of the UK can currently access "full service" and manage their account online, while others currently must use the "live service" and manage their accounts by phone. Eventually all will move to full service.

Some claimants in Inverness have reported benefits freezes of four months while their applications are processed, leaving them penniless and unable to pay for rent, gas or electricity.

Hendry, the SNP MP for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, told The National: “In Highland, the council has a framework agreement for temporary homeless accommodation. It is £25 per night – or £175 per week.

“One of my constituents, Gavin, has been living in homeless accommodation. On the old system, he would have been awarded £168 housing benefit, leaving him a small difference of £7 per week to pay out of his other entitlements.

“Under Universal Credit he has the same housing costs but now he only gets £60 per week, meaning he has to pay £115 per week out of his other allowances. Only he doesn’t even get £115 per week. Even if he gave up food, heat and light and everything else, if he spent every single penny he would still be short.

“This situation is now at crisis point and the rollout of full service needs to be immediately halted. Through no fault of their own, people are being left months without money, and when they seek out help every obstacle possible is put in their way.”

One such obstacle is a premium-rate helpline on which users regularly report delays of half an hour or more. Payments have also been held up, which is hitting Highland Council’s budget. It has seen rent arrears for Universal Credit cases in Inverness Jobcentre area rise by 82 per cent from £387,040 to £704,347 since September.

The average value of arrears for tenants is £687 in live service cases, and £908 for full service claimants – 2.9 and 3.8 times higher than the average arrears of £239 per household for other tenancies.

Where a tenant is vulnerable or in arrears, their landlord can ask for the housing element of their Universal Credit to be paid direct to them, but in practice these take between six and 10 weeks to process, resulting in arrears increasing and putting tenancies at risk.

Hendry added: “It seems the primary goal of the DWP is to delay payments at all costs. Even today I have had six separate constituents get in touch as their payment, due last week, still hasn’t arrived. This is after waiting months for money.

“My team and I have already been working on behalf of nearly 100 constituents. To make worse my staff have now been told by the DWP that they will not be able to help with these issues, unless the constituent goes online and adds comments to their online journal – causing more delays to payments and untold stress to constituents and their families. For months I have been asking the Minister [Damian Green] to halt further rollout of UC until these shambolic process issues are resolved.

"Last month I wrote to him again, asking that he come to my constituency and meet with the people who are left without money to feed their children to see first-hand the impact this devastating rollout is having.”

Hendry has not yet had a response from Green.

A DWP spokesman said: “Our research shows that the majority of Universal Credit claimants are comfortable managing their budgets, and we’re working with local authorities and landlords to get extra support to those people who may find themselves in arrears.”


Case studies: ‘Blunder after blunder’

ROBERT and Eveline Williams made a claim for Universal Credit shortly after they married last August, following the discovery that he had a potentially life-limiting brain tumour. Their case is still not resolved.

He had been a full-time head chef, while Eveline was a single mother of two and was receiving income support. She had been told her legacy benefit claims would be automatically associated with her online claim. However, she has still received overpayment notices totalling more than £10,000.

“There has been blunder after blunder,” Eveline told The National. “Between myself and the Citizens’ Advice Bureau [run in partnership with Macmillan Cancer Support] we’ve done everything they requested. We’ve filled out every bit of paperwork, we’ve been to all the appointments and they’re still missing parts.

"They’re still sending through forms that my husband should fill out because he’s not fit for work. One they sent last week was actually the third form my husband had received and completed.”

“Robert had his tumour removed in December and is still receiving cancer treatment, and we’re still getting these forms. He doesn’t have the capability to be dealing with this, but it has a huge knock-on effect, because I have a disabled child at home as well who is not in full-time education.”

She added: “At one point we had to inform them what our housing costs were per month, so we wrote it down and they had it as ‘per week’. So we had to inform them they’d got it wrong."

In another case, 44-year-old Jason Bain, his partner Claire and her three children – aged four, 11 and 13 – were left without gas or electricity for four days in January at their home in Nairn, because their Universal Credit had been delayed.

“Somebody told me they were teaching us how to budget,” said Bain, “But how can you budget when your money doesn’t come on the day you budget to?

“We had no power over a weekend until the Tuesday when I contacted my MP’s office. They did something and the money went in straight away.

“On December 23, I was sanctioned by £300 for missing an appointment in August, but I had a doctor’s note for the appointment. They still sanctioned me though – two days before Christmas. If you ask them something on the computer it takes days to respond, and the helpline isn’t much better – you can hang on there for an hour or more.”