Over the next year tens of thousands of people in Wirral will be moved onto the controversial Universal Credit leaving many families wondering, with the benefit regularly in the news over the past few weeks, when and how Universal Credit could affect them.
These welfare changes will affect not only many unemployed, sick and disabled people, but also any working families who receive housing benefit or child tax credit.
There have been calls for a proposed new system which could mean struggling families in our region can receive their benefit payments every two weeks – rather than once a month and would have their housing benefit paid directly to their landlord, to prevent the build-up of rent arrears.
Devolved authorities in Northern Ireland and Scotland have already negotiated a similar arrangement and there has been a call on the government to do the same for families in the Liverpool City Region as evidence mounts of food banks and rent accounts taking the strain of Universal Credit in its current form.
At Halton Housing Trust, for example, over £400,000 of arrears have accumulated as a direct result of the roll out of the full Universal Credit service.
Prior to claiming Universal Credit, average arrears were £270 whilst after Universal Credit was introduce the average arrears are now £448 – representing an average increase of 60%. Over the last 12 months the number of referrals the Trust has made to local food banks has more than doubled.
Universal Credit is replacing six legacy benefits with a single payment, payments made monthly in arrears and less money for some claimants, and with claims made online. Given that many residents do not have access to the internet or are not tech savvy, this will be a main issue causing great hardship to many families and elderly residents.
One thing I believe we have to change as a priority, with regards to household accounting and debt, will be the inclusion of a mobile phone contract as for many people this is the only way they can access the internet and any on-line accounts.