Be prepared for Universal Credit rollout in Cherwell district this month

Staff from Citizens Advice who will be happy to help with Universal Credit worries. (L-R) Gill Ince, Carl Jenkinson, Andrew Carter and Hayley Watson. Photo: Citizens' Advice North Oxon & South Northants NNL-171031-122103001

This month sees the introduction of Universal Credit to Banbury residents who are claiming any of six benefits it replaces.

It comes as part of a nationwide roll-out which will see all regions adopt the new ‘one size fits all’ benefit by 2022, a full five years later than originally planned. Cherwell will introduce Universal Credit on November 22.

It has come under heavy criticism since its introduction for a number of different reasons, most notably the long wait of six weeks or more, the premium rate phone number people had to call to apply or receive assistance (which has now been scrapped for a free phone number) and the once a month payment as opposed to the traditional fortnightly payment of Job Seekers Allowance.

The six benefits the new Universal Credit replaces are Child Tax Credit, Housing Benefit, Income Support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), income-related Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Working Tax Credit.

The idea for a universal benefit was first proposed in 2010 by the then Work and Pensions Minister, Iain Duncan Smith at the Conservative Party Conference and later became part of the wider Welfare Reform Act 2012.

It was first implemented in 2013 and, at least on paper, seemed to be a worthy concept with two main objectives. First it would simplify the complex benefits system by becoming a one stop shop.

Secondly it was designed to incentivise people into work as it would be more flexible and able to adapt to other income streams.

The reality, however, has seen the implementation of Universal Credit across the UK fraught with problems with some calling for its roll-out to be halted.

Currently there is an open Commons Select Committee inquiry on the roll-out of the benefit calling for evidence to support policy change.

Evidence submitted by the Halton Housing Trust prompted parliamentary select committee chairman Rt Hon Frank Field MP to say: “It would be difficult to think, in all my period of Chair of the Select Committee, of a piece of evidence that is so damning on the DWP maladministration which is mangling poorer people’s lives.

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“This maladministration is throwing Universal Credit claimants’ finances into chaos.”

Cherwell District Council, which will be responsible for the benefits implementation, did not respond to emails requesting a statement on Universal Credit. If you wish to find out more visit the government’s website at www.gov.uk/universal-credit

Councillor and MP react to the change

Not surprisingly Universal Credit has polarised political debate.

“This maladministration is throwing claimants’ finances into chaos.”

Rt Hon Frank Field MP

Here are the views two of Banbury’s leading figures.

Banbury MP Victoria Prentis (Conservative) said: “Universal Credit has been introduced to update the current benefits system which is complex and confusing.

“It replaces six different payments and six different application processes with one single combined payment. The new benefit is now being rolled out after a period of testing in pilot areas.

“Claimants in some parts of the country have been receiving Universal Credit for over four years now, allowing the Department of Work and Pensions to identify, and respond to, a range of issues.

“Given the scale of reform, I accept that it will take time to get used to but I do think we need to see it in action in our area before coming to any conclusions.

She added: “I will be monitoring all developments closely; if anyone has any questions or concerns about their own Universal Credit application, or can give feedback for me to pass on to Ministers, they should get in touch with my office on victoria.prentis.mp@parliament.uk.”

Cllr Sean Woodcock, leader of the Labour Group, said: “The principles underpinning Universal Credit are difficult to argue; a simple and cost-effective system, cutting the welfare bill and making work pay. But it has failed on every one.

“It was meant to be fully in place by the end of 2017 and won’t be, and a system originally estimated at £2bn, will cost £12bn.

“The country’s benefit bill keeps rising because of the amount of money paid out to private landlords because of ever-increasing rents.

He added: “The roll-out is fatally flawed and should be paused until the systemic errors in it can be ironed out.”

Help on hand from Citizens Advice

Across the country Citizens Advice has been inundated with people having issues with Universal Credit – helping with 100,000 problems since it was introduced.

North Oxfordshire and South Northants branch chief executive Pat Wood is concerned people in Cherwell may be caught cold when it arrives later this month.

“In principle, Universal Credit is a good idea as it means people manage their money better and more responsibly, while simplifying the benefit system. However evidence shows a lot of people are struggling as they haven’t prepared for it and the six-week waiting period is a challenge,” she said.

Gillian Guy, the chief executive of Citizens Advice nationally, joined the recent calls for the six-week wait to be reduced.

Ms Wood said the wait can be tough for people who are not ready.

“Six weeks is a long time to wait for income and asking people who are on legacy benefits, or used to fortnightly payments, to move to a new way of managing their money or with no preparation, they may find themselves in a situation where they can’t afford to eat or heat their homes. Then they seek to borrow money and get into expensive loans and spiral into debt,” she said.

Ms Wood said claimants also struggle with the change from being paid twice a month to every four weeks.

Citizens Advice wants people to be prepared for the rollout and there are a number of things people can do.

Ms Wood wanted to stress that claimants can ask for an advance payment to get through the six-week wait, and people can arrange to be paid more often in the short term.

There are people who will find trouble with the application,if you cannot access the website for example – and Ms Wood encouraged them to visit Citizens Advice who will help the best it can.

“There are people who will fall through the cracks and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen,” she said.

Loads of ways to find out more

There are a number of ways to find out more about Universal Credit and the forthcoming rollout across Cherwell district.

Whether you want to check to see if you will be affected, or to get help or quell some fears about the new system, Citizens Advice is available in many ways.

You can either visit the website, www.citizensadvice.org.uk, call 03444 111 444, or drop in to one of the centres in Banbury, Bicester, Kidlington and Brackley. The Banbury centre’s address is 26 Cornhill, Banbury, OX16 5NG.

Cherwell District Council is also on hand for anyone with concerns. Call 01295 227002 or email benefits@cherwell-dc.gov.uk.

There is also help available on the government website, which has all the information you need about the changes, at www.gov.uk/universal-credit.

Lastly, Jobcentre Plus can help, call 0345 604 3719.

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