Harrogate MP's vow over Universal Credit

"People will be out first" - Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones on the latest phase of Universal Credit hitting Harrogate.
"People will be out first" - Harrogate and Knaresborough MP Andrew Jones on the latest phase of Universal Credit hitting Harrogate.

Harrogate's MP says "people will be put first" when the town becomes a test case for the latest phase of the controversial Universal Credit system.

Andrew Jones's pledge comes after the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Amber Rudd announced earlier this week that benefit claimants in Harrogate who still receive old style benefits would be the first to be moved to the new arrangements.

Mr Jones said: “The focus for me is ensuring that people moving to Universal Credit have all the support they need at the JobCentre and I have been reassured that significant additional support will be provided.

"People will be put first. I will be following progress and speaking regularly with the Secretary of State to let her know how the pilot is going.”

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The Harrogate District was one of the first areas in the country to take part in the much-criticised new Universal Credit system when it was first introduced for new claimants five years ago.

Designed to make claiming simpler by replacing six existing benefits with a single monthly payment paid monthly in arrears.

But criticism has grown, not only because some people have received less money in the new system but also because of the length of time all claimants now have to wait for payments to start, which has been blamed partly for the national surge of food banks.

Harrogate Citizens Advice which, in recent years, has given free advice to hundreds of claimants struggling to navigate the complexities of the new system, suffered grant cuts itself last year, resulting in the loss of two trained staff members.

Although the charity has a local team of more than 50 volunteers, there are fears in an era of austerity it may not be able to cope once the latest pilot scheme is introduced in Harrogate in June.

Knaresborough Town Councillor Andy Wright said: "What will happen of the roll-out doesn't go correctly?

"Unlike major cities, there aren't a lot of groups put there offering advice to claimants.

"The volunteers do a great job but Harrogate and Citizens Advice could get over-stretched.

"Unlike the major cities, there's no one else in Harrogate for people to turn to for advice on Universal Credit.

"Claimants can have mental health issues and other difficulties.

"The new system is complicated. Who will help them make an appeal?

"If no appeals are made, the new system will appear as if it was a success."

But Mr Jones said Harrogate had been chosen because of its track record with existing claimants.

He said: “Claimants will personally agree a plan with their work coaches for switching to UC and receive step-by-step support. Vulnerable claimants will receive tailored support.”

Amber Rudd said that up to 10,000 claimants across the country who are on the old system would be moved to Universal Credit under a pilot scheme to start in July 2019 once regulations have been passed in Parliament.

The minister said: “Moving people from the old and outdated benefits system to Universal Credit is a positive and important moment.

“Once on Universal Credit people will benefit from a more personal service and can expect to receive up to six benefits combined into one, making it easier for them to manage their money.

“But the switch needs to be done carefully which is why we are taking a step-by-step approach to this, starting in Harrogate.

In 2017 Citizens Advice nationally published evidence indicating that the long wait in receiving payments under Universal Credit was plunging claimants into debt.