Highlanders owe nearly £1 million in Universal Credit rent arrears

Highland Council leaders slam "ludicrously flawed" Universal Credit system.

Scottish Highlanders on the UK Government’s flagship Universal Credit benefits system have been left with rent arrears totaling almost £1 million, as Council leaders slam the “ludicrously flawed” system and call for its rollout to be delayed.

Universal Credit is replacing a number of existing state benefits with one single monthly payment, and has faced heavy criticism from politicians and charities alike.

New claimants and those who report changes in their circumstances are forced to wait at least six weeks before receiving an initial payment, leaving many unable to pay rent and dependent on food banks.

The Highlands were one of a handful of areas chosen to trial the new system, which has been blamed for leaving poor and vulnerable people with rising rent arrears and in danger of losing their homes.

Since Universal Credit was introduced, a shocking 80% of claimants in the Scottish Highlands have been pushed into rent arrears totaling £988,687 – up by £300,000 since December 2016.

On average, households owe £953 in unpaid rent. But this almost doubles to £1700 for those living in temporary accommodation, of which 98% have found themselves behind on their rent.

The Strathspey and Badenoch Herald reports that the total housing debt owed to the local authority is forecast to reach £2 million by the end of this year.

“The figures are truly shocking”, said Highland Council leader Margaret Davidson, who has called on the UK Government to delay the rollout.

She added: “Welfare is getting squeezed all the time but we have some really good MPs who are fighting our corner at Westminster.

“We can’t have people coming out of temporary accommodation with thousands of pounds of debt that they can’t pay and forcing them to use food banks.

“I think the best we can ask for is a freeze and see how we can make this work better and stop penalising people. The welfare system does need reform but this is not the way to do it.”

Council convener Bill Lobban highlighted that Universal Credit is claimed by many low-income working households, adding that rent arrears were the fault of a “ludicrously flawed system”.

“It’s not about people abusing the money they get, although that is not to say there’s not a minority who do, it’s about a ludicrously flawed system,” he said.

“You don’t need to be the brain of Britain to know this was going to happen. If your wee lassie needs a pair of shoes or a winter coat and it’s a choice between that and paying your rent, what do you do?

“Last week we had a meeting of the 20 richest countries in the world, one of them is us, yet we still have people living in abject poverty. There is something fundamentally wrong with that system.”

Ian Blackford, SNP Westminster group leader and MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, said the UK Government should “seriously listen to the feedback they have been given” and put Universal Credit “on hold until they can sort the problems”.

“More and more MPs are becoming concerned about this and I think it will be raised in the coming weeks as people try to put pressure on the government”, he said.

A DWP spokesperson rejected the claims that Universal Credit is behind soaring rent arrears.

“The reasons for rent arrears are complex and to link it to welfare reform is misleading”, the spokesperson said.

“Our research shows that the majority of universal credit claimants are comfortably managing their budgets and that after four months the proportion of claimants we surveyed, who were in arrears at the start of their claim, fell by a third.”

Concerns have also been expressed by Citizens Advice, whose call for the rollout of Universal Credit to be paused was immediately dismissed by the UK Government.

Research by the national advice charity found that 39% of claimants were having to wait more than the 6 weeks before receiving their first payment, while 11% were left without benefit for 10 weeks or more.

The research also found that 3 in 5 (57%) are having to borrow money while waiting for their first payment.

Claimants reported difficulties with the online application process, but nearly a third (30%) said they had to make more than 10 calls to the Universal Credit helpline – sometimes waiting over 30 minutes to get through.

Citizens Advice is calling on the government to pause the rollout of Universal Credit and fix existing problems with the new system before extending the benefit to more households.

Citizens Advice Chief Executive, Gillian Guy, said: “Universal Credit is already failing too many people, pushing them into debt and leaving them without the means to make ends meet.

“Citizens Advice supports the principles of Universal Credit, but pushing ahead with roll out while the system remains beset with problems will put thousands more families at financial risk.

“The current flaws with the system also undermine the very reasons Universal Credit was introduced: to simplify the benefits system and make sure every hour of work pays.

“As things stand, too many people are finding Universal Credit very complicated, and problems such as long wait for payments or difficulties getting help with an application mean they are less able to focus on getting into work or increasing their hours.

“The government needs to pause plans to accelerate the roll out of full service Universal Credit this Autumn and devote the time and resource needed to tackle the key problems which mean the system is not working.”