The choice of Harrogate as the testing ground for the next stage of the Government’s controversial Universal Credit system may seem like a matter of debate as part of a national controversy but the facts on the ground say it matters for many residents in the town.
The figures show that, as of February this year, a total of 4,633 people in Harrogate were already on Universal Credit in which all new claimants must wait five weeks for their first payment.
The numbers are set to increase from July 1 when, for the first time in the UK, claimants in Harrogate who still receive old style benefits move over to the online system.
Despite reassuring noises, the amount of problems are also predicted to rise over a system which the Government minister responsible himself acknowledged earlier in the year was linked to the increased use of food banks.
A new, in-depth report by the investigations team from this newspaper’s parent company JPIMedia, lays bare the extent of the problems of Universal Credit.
People claiming Universal Credit in Harrogate (February 2019)
Not in Employment: 2,533
In Employment: 2,098
Number of Harrogate’s housing tenants claiming Universal Credit in arrears at the end of the financial year 2018/19:
(These figures have been supplied to the Harrogate Advertiser from Harrogate Borough Council)
Money owed to Harrogate Borough Council in rent arrears from tenants on Universal Credit
Approximately £156,000 was owed at the end of the financial year of 2018/19 by tenants who are, or have been, in receipt of Universal Credit.
(Please note: Not all these arrears are directly attributable to UC and many tenants will have had debts before starting to claim UC.)
Estimated cost to Harrogate Borough Council of the introduction of Universal Credit since its inception
2018/19 – £73,530 plus £50,213 Universal Credit admininstration grant.
2017/18 – £81,750 plus £45,659 in new burdens funding.
2016/17 – £33,000 plus £75,854 UC roll out cost.
UK: National number of Universal Credit claimants in rent arrears and the costs nationally
120,000 Universal Credit claimants are now in rent arrears, owing a combined £84.5m.
(The above figures have been supplied by the JPIMedia Investigations team)
Universal Credit: What it is
When first introduced in just four postcodes in 2013, it was hoped Universal Credit would simplify the system by amalgamating six existing benefits into one payment and support those on benefits into work through top-ups to low wages.
The six benefits amalgamated are: income support, jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit
Universal Credit: Main problems
Online claims: Universal Credit is a digital system and people must claim it online, save for a few exceptional circumstances. Many struggle with this. According to the Government’s own research, nearly half of claimants were unable to register their claim through the website without help.
Five-week wait: Deliberately built into the system is a wait of five weeks before people can get their first Universal Credit payment. If there are any hold-ups with a claim, the wait can be longer. Many claimants have to request to borrow an advance payment, which then has to be paid back through benefit deductions.
Less money for some: The Government had long insisted no-one would be worse off under Universal Credit than old-style benefits, but last October then-Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey admitted some would lose money. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates 1.9m people will lose more than £1,000 in entitlements.
Getting behind with council tax payments: Data obtained from 77 councils shows they were owed £27m from claimants for 2018/19, an average of £355,000 for each local authority.
Growing arrears with council rents: Housing benefit was previously paid directly to landlords, but with Universal Credit it is often been paid to tenants instead.
Helpline issues: More than two million calls to the Government’s Universal Credit helpline have gone unanswered, with the number of abandoned calls growing meaning people are lost in the system without the support they desperately need to claim their benefits.
(Figures supplied by the JPIMedia Investigations team)