UNIVERSAL Credit claimants’ debt can be “exacerbated” by the five-week waiting period for their first payment, a National Audit Office (NAO) report has found.

The NAO warns that despite advances being available, they found claimants had experienced “financial hardship and debt” during that initial waiting period.

The body’s report found that 80% of low-income households have their first Universal Credit payment reduced because they are “more likely to claim an advance and have other debts to repay”.

While the NAO said the five-week wait does not cause all the problems claimants’ may face, it does “exacerbate” them.

Research from the Department of Work and Pensions itself has suggested rent arrears can “increase more rapidly” after a claim is made, the NAO added.

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The study also revealed that 312,000 (90% of) new claims were paid entirely or partially late during 2019. This was a “significant” improvement from 2017, when just 55% of payments were made on time.

Despite this, 6% (105,000) households had to wait 11 weeks or more for their full payment to come through last year.

The wide-ranging report goes on to say that the cost of rolling out Universal Credit, which replaces six means-tested benefits, has gone from an estimated £1.4 billion to £4.6bn.

Responding to the report Iain Porter of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation called for the five-week wait to be ended. He said: ”There was nothing compassionate or just about this policy prior to the pandemic.

“As the levels of unemployment grow, we urgently need to get support to people when they need it."

Meanwhile Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said it is “worrying” that hundreds of thousands of people are getting late payments.

She went on: “Understandably, people on a low income are often reluctant to take an advance payment to get them through the wait because it's a loan and so it's just more debt to pay off down the line."

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal Credit is delivering in these unprecedented times, with more than 2.5 million new claims processed since mid-March and over one million advances paid to those in urgent need within days. Nobody has to wait five weeks for payment.

“As the report shows, significant improvement has been made in the proportion of Universal Credit claimants receiving their first payment on time and in full, currently around 90%.

“We’ve also increased the standard allowance by up to £1040 a year, as part of a package of welfare measures worth over £6.5bn to support the most vulnerable.”