Sunderland MP calls for 'wholesale reform' of Universal Credit system
Universal Credit is still pushing tens of thousands into financial crisis just weeks ahead of the next phase of its introduction.
An investigation by the Echo and its JPIMedia parent company into the single benefit - which lumps up to six individual benefits into one monthly payment - reveals that:
*The average rent arrears facing tenants on Universal Credit is already more than twice that of those still claiming housing benefit;
*More than 550,000 calls to the Department for Work and Pensions' official helpline failed to get through in the first quarter of this year;
*Nearly one in five callers feel they are given incorrect information even if they do get through.
Other criticisms of the system, initially introduced by the then Coalition Government in 2013, include the five-week minimum wait for first payments, its monthly schedule and online only application process.
With the number of Sunderland households on Universal Credit more than doubling to 6,795 by the end of 2018, there are fears problems will escalate locally this year.
Up to three million people nationwide are also due to be gradually transferred to the single payment system from July under what is known as "managed migration".
Also read: Your Universal Credit questions answered
Bridget Phillipson, the Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South, sits on Parliament's public accounts committee, which has twice examined Universal Credit.
She insists "we need nothing less than wholesale reform" of the system.
Ms Phillipson said: “I’ve long been concerned that Universal Credit is causing real hardship for people in our community.
"I’ve heard from constituents who have worked hard and done the right thing, yet are left worse off under Universal Credit, and waiting weeks on end for support they’re entitled to.
"These problems are not only to do with the delivery of Universal Credit, but the inherent flaws of the system itself.
"It is designed to make some people poorer, as the government itself admitted last year - with working families particularly affected through cuts to in-work support.
"This is simply unacceptable when so many people in our region are in low-paid, insecure work, and already struggle with the cost of living.
"We need nothing less than wholesale reform of Universal Credit, and I will continue to campaign for this in Parliament.”
Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to local authorities throughout Great Britain indicated that more than 120,000 Universal Credit claimants owe a combined £84.5m.
The average £681 figure is more than twice £285 average owed by people still claiming the old benefit.
Sunderland City Council did not provide any figures for local arrears.
A DWP spokesman said it was wrong to blame Universal Credit for rising rent debts, adding: “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.”
An FOI to the DWP revealed that around one in eight calls to the official helpline from January-March failed were abandoned.
A DWP spokesman said: “Since January this year we have answered almost 3.7m calls to the helpline and latest figures show that people wait less than three minutes on average before their call is answered.”
*The official helpline number is 0800 328 5644.