Charities across Tayside and Fife have admitted they are struggling to cope with the strain of Universal Credit amid calls for a wider rollout of the controversial benefit to be scrapped.
The new all-in-one payment, which was introduced in Dundee last November, has been linked with a sharp increase in food bank use in the city and a 1,400% rise in the number of people seeking emergency handouts nationwide.
Dundee City Council has seen the number of hard-pressed Dundonians seeking emergency help increase more than tenfold since the scheme was introduced, costing the local authority around £94 million annually.
Dundee MPs Stewart Hosie and Chris Law urged the UK Government to halt the rollout of Universal Credit or risk plunging more Scots into poverty.
Mr Law said: “Thousands of Dundonians will rightly be worried about the UK Government’s plans to migrate them from their current benefits, such as child and working tax credits, to a system which has severe and proven issues.
“Numerous studies have shown that instances of rent arrears and food bank use are significantly higher amongst Universal Credit claimants than amongst those on the legacy benefits, which is simply unjustifiable.
“Universal Credit was meant to be an improvement on the existing system, but has instead caused untold misery for many of those forced onto it.”
The majority of claimants in Scotland are still on the older legacy benefits model but the UK Government has said it plans to migrate everyone to the new system by December 2023, prompting concern from charity workers.
Ken Linton, of Dundee Foodbank, revealed around a quarter of the work being done by his organisation is now solely to mitigate the impact of Universal Credit on the city’s most vulnerable residents.
Mr Linton said the issue comes up daily for the charity, with the most frequent problems arising when people are moved across from one of the older benefits and forced to wait weeks for vital funds.
He added: “If the rate of distribution remains the same, there is only enough food available for a couple of months. We always welcome donations of food and the people of Dundee are very generous.”
Mike Archibald, from Perth Foodbank, said its provisions had been gutted by more than two-thirds “in a very short space of time” as a result of claimants facing payment delays.
Dundee East MP Stewart Hosie said it was “scandalous” local authorities and charities were being forced to mitigate the effects of Universal Credit, and said his office had been inundated with concerns.
“I have seen first-hand the damaging effects of the UK Government’s disastrous roll-out of the service,” he said.
“These policies aren’t just harming people by taking money out their pockets, they are preventing local authorities from using money to benefit local communities.”
Unite the Community Tayside, an anti-poverty campaign group based in Dundee, will hold an emergency meeting later this week ahead of a planned national day of action against Universal Credit.
Fife MP in challenge to Work and Pensions Secretary
A Fife MP has challenged the UK’s Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey to visit the area and learn about the impact Universal Credit is having on people’s lives.
Shadow Scotland Secretary Lesley Laird, who represents Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, invited Ms McVey to take part in a game of Universal Debit, a project created by the charity Fife Gingerbread.
The game puts players in the shoes of a single parent of two forced to make tough choices while waiting five weeks for their first Universal Credit payment.
The challenge comes after charities in Fife reported a sharp rise in people coming to them for help related to Universal Credit.
In a letter to Ms McVey, Ms Laird wrote: “Fife Gingerbread – along with many other charities I’ve visited in my constituency over recent weeks and months – report a sharp increase in clients adversely affected by Universal Credit.
“It’s not an understatement to say that here in Kirkcaldy, where there are already pockets of child poverty second only in scale to areas of Glasgow in Scotland. Universal Credit is fuelling a poverty crisis.
“Kirkcaldy Foodbank – which is now issuing a record 1000 parcels per month, thanks entirely to donations from the public and local businesses – says it is struggling to continue to meet demand and has appealed to politicians for urgent help.”
Ms Laird urged the minister to “think again” about Universal Credit and said the current way the welfare system is being used “quite simply cannot continue”.
She added: “If for any reason you are still in doubt about the damage Universal Credit is causing, then please, accept my invitation, come to Fife, and see for yourself just what a terrible affliction this system is on families, and children.”
The Courier reported on Saturday that Citizens Advice and Rights Fife (CARF) had been inundated with requests for help and warned it had put the decades-old organisation under “significant strain”.
Rhona Cunningham, CEO of Fife Gingerbread, said: “The Universal Debit game uses the experience of a parent who went through complete hell when they were moved onto Universal Credit; triggered by being moved into more suitable accommodation.
“The switch in benefits meant no incoming money for six weeks, and players have to make decisions on real life situations that this parent faced during that time, from buying food and heating a home to school trips and birthday parties.
“I challenge anyone to play Universal Debit and then suggest that Universal Credit is anything other than a disgrace.”
DWP says benefits policy working for vast majority
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has insisted that Universal Credit is working for the majority of claimants.
A DWP spokesman said: “The reasons why people use foodbanks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause. Universal Credit is working for the vast majority who claim it.
We’ve already made significant improvements, such as 100% advances which support people before their first payment, removing the seven waiting days and offering two weeks’ extra housing support for claimants moving on to UC.
“People receiving full service Universal Credit across Scotland can choose if they want to be paid twice monthly and they have the option to have the housing element of their award paid directly to their landlord.
He added: “In Scotland we are delivering flexibilities in payments known as Universal
Credit Scottish Choices on behalf of the Scottish Government.
“In addition, the Scottish Government now has significant welfare powers, including to top-up existing benefits, pay discretionary payments and create entirely new benefits altogether.”