Universal Credit: ‘Sleepless nights’ for councillors worried about impact on residents

Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Islington Council

Councillors are having ‘sleepless nights’ at the potential impact over upcoming changes to the benefits system on Islington residents.

In a presentation to Islington’s 4 September policy and performance scrutiny committee, Robbie Rainbird, the council’s head of processing (including housing benefit) set out the background and context to the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC), and what the council is doing to prepare for it.

Following the presentation, councillors condemned UC, emphasising that the planned changes were not under the control of local government.

Cllr Troy Gallagher (Lab, Bunhill), said: “This makes me angry. It gives me sleepless nights, it really does.

“This whole thing has not addressed the situation of people who are vulnerable.

“The level of online literacy that is required to make an application, if you have multiple and complex needs you can fall at the first hurdle.

“Councils are the first line of defence, and we are best placed to see what the impact of these changes will be, when people pick up the phone to say that they are having an awful time.

“The times I have been unemployed, going to the job centre is the most soul-destroying thing I have done in my entire life.

“That is why we need to have satisfaction that we have emphasised to any work coaches or advisors that they are stakeholders in our community.”

Universal Credit is a single monthly payment combining six former benefit payments: child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, income-based jobseeker’s allowance (JSA), income-related employment and support allowance (ESA), and working tax credit.

All new benefit claimants in Islington, as well as existing benefit claimants who have experienced a change in their circumstances, were transferred to Universal Credit on 20 June 2018.

Councillors were told that one issue with the system is that claimants who have not phoned ahead to confirm their appointment with a work advisor had found their UC applicatin cancelled.

Cllr Osh Gantly (Lab, Highbury East), joined with other councillors in criticising a lack of information about the reforms: “I couldn’t find out very much. I couldn’t find out, if I was unemployed, what my UC payment would be.

“At the end of the calculation I did online, it said UC was not available in my area yet.

“The information that is out there at the moment tells me that residents might not be able to access the system very easily. I found the whole thing impenetrable.”

A suggestion by Cllr Kadeema Woodbyrne (Lab, Clerkenwell) that workshops for residents on using UC could be held at Islington’s libraries was welcomed by the committee.

Cllr Sheila Chapman (Lab, Junction) also explored how the council might support residents in financial hardship struggling to pay back advance UC payments, which operate as loans.

Councillors remained worried that claimants struggling with the system would blame local government.

Cllr Gary Heather (Lab, Finsbury Park), said: “I welcome what the council is doing to try to mitigate the impact on residents.

“The government said they set out to do this to simplify the system, but it is interminably complicated.

“It was all done on purpose, we know that. It is a return to the Poor Law.

“This is a political thing. The government want people affected to think we’re doing this to them.”

According to Rainbird, the average rent arrears of a person claiming UC is £902.37.

Rainbird said: “It is the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that are doing this, but of course we want to help residents and support them through this transition.”