Universal Credit is still pushing tens of thousands of people into destitution just weeks before its roll-out continues, the JPIMedia Investigations team can reveal.
The benefit is leaving an ever-growing number of people in deep rent arrears, with the number of claimants evicted from council houses reaching a record high.
With millions more poised to be moved onto the system, there have been calls for an urgent halt to the programme to avoid a catastrophe.
Families across Lancashire have told how they spiralled into debt after being shifted onto Universal Credit while, across the UK, information uncovered by JPIMedia Investigations reveals how more and more people are being forced into financial turmoil.
Figures obtained from 145 local authorities which still own social housing show more than 120,000 claimants are now in rent arrears totalling more than £84.5 million.
On average, each owes £681, more than twice the average arrears of those on the old housing benefit system.
Evictions of Universal Credit claimants from council homes, while relatively low, reached an all-time high in 2018/19 of 514.
YOUNG COUPLE GIVEN £485 BACK AFTER WRONGLY BEING LEFT SHORT
Elle Wilson, 18, and Johnathan Downie, 19, feared losing their home after being moved onto Universal Credit and falling into thousands of pounds of debt.
The couple, who live with their eight-month-old daughter Maddison-Lily, said a row over payments left them desperately short of cash.
Stay-at-home mum Elle, said: “I felt we were going to lose our home and my daughter would not have a good life.”
The pair were put on Universal Credit last August after moving in together and, with Johnathan working at a pub and then a restaurant and now a fish and chip shop, Elle said their payments fluctuated from £23 one month to £469 the next. One month they even got nothing, she added.
“Johnathan was working and they said he had earned an amount of money that he had not,” she said.
After the Post contacted the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Government division responsible for Universal Credit, it found the couple had indeed been underpaid and handed them £485 towards their housing costs.
It said: “Universal Credit ensures claimants always benefit from working. To ensure that, we rely on information provided by employers. In this case that was incorrect and we’ve paid the additional money owed to Ms Wilson.”
Elle and Johnathan’s families have lent the pair money for shopping, helped look after Maddison-Lily, and have even filled their cupboards with food, with Elle saying the five-week wait for the first Universal Credit payment to come through “was the start” of the couple’s financial issues.
The pair fell behind on their rent, ended up in court, and are now paying their landlord back arrears of around £2,000 at a rate of £37 per month.
They also fell behind on their council tax, water bills, and TV licence.
“Day-to-day I struggle because I have nothing in the bank to take my daughter out with,” Elle said.
The DWP said: “Nobody has to wait five weeks for money on Universal Credit and, like Ms Wilson, people can receive advance payments to support them and their families.”
DAD THOUGHT ABOUT SUICIDE AFTER MOVE TO UNIVERSAL CREDIT DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Barry Graham, 46, said he considered killing himself after he was moved onto Universal Credit just days before Christmas.
The newly-single dad-of-three was unable to buy gifts for his children or put food on the table for seven weeks, and had to rely on the charity of family, friends, and even strangers.
He said: “I was at breaking point. If it was not for my kids, I would not be here now; that’s how bad it was.”
Barry, of Seymour Street, Chorley, said he was told to move onto Universal Credit by a Jobcentre worker and filled in the paperwork on December 20, just weeks after his marriage collapsed and he was forced to give up his job to look after his children.
But he was unaware his child tax credit and housing benefit - which he had been claiming for a month - would stop immediately, leaving him without cash until his first Universal Credit payment came through over a month later.
He was given an advance loan of £750, but said that wasn’t enough to put food on the table for his children, Cameron, now 13, Jacob, now 12, and Millie, now seven.
A friend raised enough money to buy the youngsters Christmas presents, while the family went to a relative’s for a festive dinner, but Barry, who used to work 70-hour weeks, found himself in a spiralling benefits and poverty trap in late 2016, when the controversial new system was being trialled.
“I had nothing,” he said. “I was desperate.”
Barry found himself at the LW Storehouse food bank, at the Living Waters church in Chorley, and said: “It was one of the hardest things to do, as a man who worked all his life, to go through the doors and literally beg for food. If it was not for food banks, people would be stuffed nowadays.”
The DWP said: “Universal Credit replaces six benefits, including child tax credits and housing benefit. This is made clear during the online claiming process.”
YOUNG MUM SKIPPED MEALS AFTER GOING FROM WORKING THREE JOBS TO STRUGGLING IN JUST TWO YEARS
Savannagh Burke, 21, a forensic science and criminal investigation student at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, said she goes without food in order to feed her baby son because she is barely managing on Universal Credit.
She went from holding down three jobs to struggling in just two years after unexpectedly getting pregnant last June.
She now lives in a small two-bedroom flat where she can’t afford to turn on the heating and, some days, can only afford to feed her three-month-old son Leo.
With only her statutory maternity allowance and just over £200 a month in Universal Credit to live off, Savannagh said: “After paying my rent and other bills, I am left with around £10 a week to live off. That’s meant to cover food, nappies, and clothes for Leo, as well as other outgoings like travel.
“It’s just not possible.”
Savannagh said she fell pregnant despite being on the pill and having a coil fitted, describing her conception as “completely unexpected”.
She said: “I’d held down three jobs before I had Leo, working at a bank, a jewellers, and in a pub. Even though I was a student I’d always had money and would earn around £900 a month with only minimal bills to pay at my mum’s.
“Now I had no income apart from the £580.72 a month I was getting in maternity allowance and £209 Universal Credit. That was the most I qualified for because I was on maternity.”
A third-year student, Savannagh has now had to put her degree on hold, and said: “My only way out now is to get back to work as soon as I can and start earning some money,” she said.
“I have been thinking about having to get a full-time job but I don’t know how I’m going to do that, care for my baby and carry on with my dissertation as I need to continue that while I’m having a break from university.
“The Government is always saying it wants to help get people back into work and help them get an education but the system is letting people down.”
The DWP said: “Ms Burke is getting the full amount she’s entitled to. We weren’t made aware of any concerns with her benefits, but have spoken to her to clarify her payments.”
YOUNG MUM STUDENT LEFT RELYING ON EX-BOYFRIEND TO PROVIDE FOR HER
A heavily-pregnant student, 22, from Preston, was told she would not qualify for Universal Credit unless she quit her job or university.
She said she applied for benefits last year while still expecting and working 18.5 hours a week in a call centre: “The guy I had the meeting with said he was confused because I wasn’t entitled to anything.
“He went and got his manager and he explained that, if I was at university full-time but did not work, I would be eligible, and the same if I was working part-time and not studying.
“But because I was doing both, I did not meet their criteria.”
The DWP said the young mum, who is on maternity leave after giving birth earlier this year, may now qualify for help and urged her to reapply.
It said: “As full-time UK students receive funding for their living costs, they would not usually be entitled to Universal Credit.
“However, having children would of course change their circumstances and so anyone in this position should get in contact about their entitlement.”
The second-year criminology student said she was “struggling” to get by and was still relying on her ex-partner to provide for her.
She said: “I’m not even earning enough to cover the bills, never mind pay for food. I have even thought about maybe not going back to uni. I want to, because obviously I want to finish my course.
“I am trying to better myself and I don’t get any support.”
CLAIMANTS ARE BEING LEFT 'BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE'
Introduced as part of the Tories’ welfare reform, Universal Credit replaces six benefits - child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), employment and support allowance (ESA), and working tax credit - with one monthly payment. Historically, benefits were paid fortnightly.
Only new claimants and those with a change in circumstances are currently put on Universal Credit, though the Government plans to start shifting all those on old style benefits onto the new system from July, starting in Harrogate, North Yorkshire.
A change in circumstances can be as little as moving home or a child turning 18.
Universal Credit was rolled out in Preston last July, with almost 5,000 people already on it. Some 1,521 have jobs.
Those moved onto Universal Credit have to wait at least five weeks for their first payment, which charity The Trussell Trust said is “leaving many without enough money to cover the basics”.
“There are other problems with Universal Credit, but the five-week wait is one of the key reasons why we’ve seen a rise in people needing food banks where it has been rolled out,” it said.
Struggling families can apply for an ‘advance’ sum - a loan of up to 100 per cent of their estimated monthly payment to help bridge the gap - but they have to be repaid over 12 months - or 16 from October 2021.
The Trussell Trust, which runs food banks up and down the country, said people are left “between a rock and a hard place: no money now, or not enough money later?”
A 13 per cent rise in food parcels being handed out in Lancashire has also been recorded by the charity, which is campaigning for the five-week wait to be reduced, in the past year.
'UNIVERSAL CREDIT IS LEADING TO INCREASING RENT ARREARS'
Sue Ramsden from the National Housing Federation, whose members provide 2.5 million homes for more than five million people in England, said: “We survey our members on a regular basis and they consistently report a high level of arrears in Universal Credit than other types of benefit.”
Hugh Owen from Riverside, one of the biggest providers of social housing, said: “Our own data shows that Universal Credit is leading to increasing rent arrears.
"Arrears for our tenants claiming Universal Credit are more than three and a half times higher than those who are not claiming UC with average arrears of £666 for UC claimants compared to £185 for those households not in receipt of UC.
“While we have the capability to work closely with and support tenants claiming Universal Credit to help them manage their debts, many people living in the private rented sector do not have the same help or understanding from their landlord.
“High levels of rent arrears increases the risk of homelessness, especially in the private rented sector. We would like to see an end to the five-week waiting period for Universal Credit because we know this is pushing people into debt and arrears.”
BUT THE DEPARTMENT FOR WORK AND PENSIONS SAYS IT 'COMPLETELY DISAGREES'
The DWP said it was wrong to blame Universal Credit for rent arrears.
“We completely disagree with this analysis which compares fundamentally different claimant groups,” a spokeswoman said.
“Many people claim Universal Credit after a significant life event and will join with pre-existing arrears, while those on legacy benefits are likely to have been claiming for a longer period, with arrears having reduced over time.”
She said the department had made various changes to Universal Credit to prevent people going into arrears.
This included paying two weeks of extra Housing Benefit for those moving onto Universal Credit and paying rent directly to landlords where requested.