A built-in six week delay before new claimants receive Universal Credit payments is set to send Fife Council’s rent arrears skyrocketing, it has emerged.
A new report has laid bare just how much pressure new welfare reforms and benefit sanctions is putting on individuals, communities and council resources across the Kingdom, amid fears that people will struggle to cope when Universal Credit is fully rolled out in December 2017.
A limited, initial roll out of the new set-up has been under way since April 2016 with more than 1,350 people now on Universal Credit.
However, early evidence has pointed to huge challenges for claimants and services, particularly around long waiting times to receive benefit payments, poor information flow resulting in less council tax reduction payments, and a negative impact on rent payments and income.
Indeed, Fife councillors have been told this week that rent arrears could rise by a staggering £5.8 million — given the 506 council tenants already on Universal Credit in Fife have racked up arrears of £197,000, an average of £389 per tenant.
Les Robertson, head of revenue and commercial services, said the £5.8 million was an estimate using that average across all council tenants likely to be on Universal Credit, and described the situation as “horrendous”.
“That figure would be about doubling our rent arrears,” he told members of Fife’s executive committee this week.
Head of housing John Mills added that the key problem appears to be the six-week wait new claimants are experiencing before receiving any cash, leaving many people unable to pay rent and strapped for cash generally.
“It’s not good news anyway you look at this,” he noted.
Fife councillors have also expressed particular concerns about the new benefits sanctions regime coming into force and the increased number of conditions attached to receiving benefits.
Council leader David Ross even went as far to describe the welfare reforms as an “absolute scandal”.
“Like most people, I would certainly recognise the pernicious effect that this has had on society in Fife,” he added.
“We think it’s an absolute scandal that this is being proceeded with.
“It’s not a place any of us want to be in but we will do our very best to mitigate the impact on Fife.”
Kirkcaldy councillor Neil Crooks added: “I would describe this sanctions regime as medieval, and it shouldn’t be in a so-called 21st century democratic society.
“People have got no money and are having to traipse into foodbanks, which is another thing that should not even be on the agenda.”
Councillors paid tribute to the work done by the local authority and its partners to alleviate the situation in the face of reforms, but SNP leader Neale Hanvey bemoaned the need for the work in the first place.
“If we had the choice to control this part of policy we would probably make a different choice that would not be a reflection of a pernicious and deliberately targeted social policy against the poor and most vulnerable,” he said.
“Sanctions don’t work and they cost more to administer. The cost in financial and human terms of this perverse regime is massive.”
The report comes in the same week that campaigners from Unite the union protested outside Dunfermline job centre as part of a UK-wide day of action against benefit sanctions.
Unite Community — the section of the union for people not in work — said it was demonstrating after hearing first-hand stories of how people are being left destitute as a result of having their social security taken away for “ridiculous reasons”.
Co-ordinator Jamie Caldwell said: “It’s heartbreaking for that to happen in developing countries, but it’s a source of national scandal and shame in a rich country like the UK.
“Rather than punishing the unemployed for not having a job the government should be helping people get jobs. People need a hand up — not a slap down.”