The biggest cities in Yorkshire are bracing themselves for a potential surge in demand affecting frontline services amid great uncertainty as the continued roll-out of Universal Credit is imminent.
From next month, the Department of Work and Pensions will in most cases stop accepting claims for six so-called “legacy” benefits in Leeds – the region’s largest city – in the move over to the new welfare system, and between 2019 and 2023 those already receiving them will be migrated to UC.
Sheffield, too, is due to begin the wholesale roll-out the city’s new benefit claimants on to the Government’s flagship programme in November.
The Yorkshire Post today continues its week-long series into UC.
Many are due sign on to ‘full service’ Universal Credit in Leeds within the first month - around 1,000, according to the DWP - and one senior councillor who is concerned about the pressures that payment delays could have on families, and the demand on its services.
Sheffield City Council has also been organising “ad hoc” planning groups at ward level aimed at preparing for a rise in need among its residents, The Yorkshire Post is told.
Debra Coupar, the executive member for communities in Leeds, said: “We don’t know what number to expect."
She added: “We do have some real concerns because other local authorities we’ve spoken to that have had the roll-out, their experiences have not been really good for the claimants.
“They have increased rent arrears, people are in further debt, having to go to charity.”
Members of the city’s council-run ‘hubs’ will offer residents budgeting advice and can help people with their claims. Full service UC has to be claimed online, presenting problems for people who are not IT-literate.
Coun Coupar said: “I’m concerned that we may have a lot of people at any given time needing assistance to make a claim.”
She added: “It’s going to put huge pressure on families. How are they supposed to pay their rent, feed their families?
“I don’t think that this change that the Government is making in Universal Credit is very humane. It doesn’t look at the impact on people and families.”
Nick Waterfield works with the PXI-Parson Cross Initiative, an organisation aimed at reducing social isolation in Sheffield’s Southey ward, which runs a food bank. The council has pulled together various frontline services to co-operate at ward level on how they might best prepare for the benefit roll-out under the Universal Credit Partnership Group.
“At the food banks we’re already seeing an increase,” Mr Waterfield said.
He added: “We are planning based on what’s happened in other areas rather than what’s exactly going to happen.”
Again, the issue of online claims integral to ‘full service’ UC has presented difficulties, and the charity, along with other organisations, has been looking into where residents can access the internet.
“The Citizens Advice Bureau have been finding it very hard. There are no training sites so unless you sit next to someone making a claim you can’t see how the site works, so everything is relatively in the dark.”
He is concerned that the roll-out may have a “tsunami of effect” on services, but predictions about what is coming are still “vague”.
“There are, within our ward, two food banks operating and both of them are already stretched,” he said.
“We are concerned about how we would cope with anything more than a 10 to 15 per cent increase, which would throw us major problems.”
He added: “Food banks are not designed to be a system you can roll out and roll out and roll out.
“We set ours up as a defensive response to the fact that our neighbours are in need, and they still are.”
There is more uncertainty for people migrating over to UC in the next few years, such as those on working and child tax credits.
“People on working tax credits and they don’t think they’re going to be affected eventually,” Mr Waterfield said. They say, ‘It’s a tax credit, not a benefit’, and we’re going ‘I know’.
“There is a lack of realisation with some people as to what this actually will mean.”