The latest phase of the controversial and complicated Universal Credit system has now started in Harrogate in a move which may affect 10,000 people.
The Department for Work and Pensions told the Harrogate Advertiser reacted to concern over the introduction of 'managed migration' for all existing benefit claimants with a list of reassurances, including a pledge that people on the trial will be given three months to transfer to Universal Credit, a system in which all new claimants must wait five weeks for their first payment.
The rollout, in which Harrogate will act as a test case for the whole country follows the introduction of regulations in the House of Commons last Monday by Amber Rudd, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
The regulations confirmed plans to start a pilot in Harrogate which will see no more than 10,000 legacy benefit claimants without a change of circumstance move to Universal Credit, a controversial online system plague by problems.
Even the DWP minister herself has acknowledged in public the negative impact of parts of the new system, in particular, the five-week wait for payments which can lead to debt and has been blamed partly for the rise of food banks in the UK.
The DWP confirmed to the Harrogate Advertiser that the pilot had now begun and would last for at least a year but that no one would lose out financially as a result of the changes.
What the DWP says is happening in Harrogate
Harrogate has been selected as it has been live with Universal Credit since 2016 and has a mix of the benefit claimants that will reflect caseloads across the country.
The DWP will be working closely with the council and other local organisations to ensure the process works for everyone.
The DWP will initially select claimants for the pilot from those that currently attend the Jobcentre for meetings with their work coach.
Everyone taking part in the pilot will receive personalised support and work coaches will establish whether someone is ready to move and build on their existing relationships to prepare claimants and support them through the process.
Once ready, claimants are given a migration notice which gives them at least 3 months to submit a claim for Universal Credit.
Many claimants will have higher entitlements when receiving Universal Credit but, for those who do not, anyone on legacy benefits whose circumstances remain the same and move to Universal Credit as part of the process will be eligible for transitional protection, which will mean that no one will lose out financially when they change.
Harrogate and Universal Credit: The figures
Official figures show that, as of February 2019, a total of 4,633 people in Harrogate were already on Universal Credit.
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.
The number of Harrogate’s housing tenants claiming Universal Credit in arrears at the end of the financial year 2018/19 was 495.
Concerns over impact in Harrogate
Designed to save £18 billion of government money. Universal Credit was developed to replace six individual benefits as part of the Conservative’s welfare reform programme.
However, official bodies, including ,major national charities, have expressed concern that it is overly complicated for those seeking benefits.
In 2016 Harrogate and Skipton jobcentres were among the first in the country to move to the comprehensive ‘full service’ Universal Credit.
Eighty of its clients shared their experiences as part of national research.
The report highlighted a number of serious problems such as the very long wait for payment, and recommended a pause in the rollout until the problems are fixed.
One of the problems associated with the introduction of Universal Credit has been the growth in rent arrears.
What a Harrogate charity says about Universal Credit
Earlier this year, Charlotte Fortune, hostel service manager at Harrogate Homeless Project told the Harrogate Advertiser the original introduction of Universal Credit for people new to claiming benefit had caused problems, those these had now eased.
She said: "When Universal Credit was first introduced, we had an influx of clients with benefit related problems and in higher levels of poverty than before
"This has become less apparent in the more recent years.
"However, clients still particularly struggle with the one monthly payment, as many of our clients find it difficult to budget for a full month, finding themselves without money after the first week.
"We have found that clients who have literacy and multiple complex needs would struggle to log on and manage their journal without the support of staff at the project/ services external to the job centre.
"Most clients now have a live Universal Credit claim, however we do have some on the legacy benefits (namely ESA), who we expect to be migrating across to UC in due course.
"Staff have recently been on some training with both the job centre and supporting agencies to advise how to support clients with this transition on to UC, and we have been reassured by the Harrogate Job Centre of who to contact should the clients have any issues with the service.
"We can only hope that individuals who do not have the support of services are also able to access this kind of support."
Reassurances over Universal Credit
Harrogate and Knaresborough’s MP Andrew Jones is on the record as saying ‘people will be put first’ in the latest phase of the controversial Universal Credit system.
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.”
The Department for Work and Pensions has insisted Universal Credit is a “force for good, providing support to more than 1.8 million people”.
It said it had made various changes to Universal Credit to prevent people going into rent arrears, such as paying rent directly to landlords where requested.
Amber Rudd recently announced that more than 13,000 severely disabled people who lost benefits after being put on Universal Credit would finally start receiving back payments.