When the independent chair of the Safeguarding Adults Board asks about the introduction of universal credit in Brighton and Hove, as he did this week, it’s hardly surprising that party politicians have questions.
As a Labour councillor, I have questions and concerns. As the lead member for mental health, those concerns are even greater.
The concept of universal credit has laudable aims – to make work pay, to reduce the taper rate for those moving into work and to reduce poverty.
Yet under this chaotic, incompetent and ideological Tory government, it is now synonymous with a reform simply not fit for purpose.
This bureaucratic mess has changed nine times since 2013.
Simplifying benefits may be a commendable but it’s a system with so many design flaws as to render it a disaster.
Theresa May often talks about the JAMs – those Just About Managing – but these are the very people hardest hit.
It has driven many into debt, leaving them vulnerable to predatory legal loan sharks, rent arrears and driven to food banks.
Not to mention the impact on people’s mental health as they worry about debt.
The six-week wait for benefits is simply too long for a social security system which is a safety net – a safety net there to stop debt, hunger and destitution.
But for one in five, delays go way beyond six weeks.
In a recent debate in the House of Commons, MPs spoke about constituents being forced to choose between paying the rent and paying their fuel bills.
Another spoke of a woman sleeping on her cousin’s floor having been evicted when she was unable to pay the rent.
This is a system designed for the most vulnerable in society yet makes no allowance for the way they live and work.
Few claimants have savings that will last them longer than a month while the majority of those on low incomes are paid fortnightly rather than monthly.
Simply allowing a choice of being paid fortnightly rather than monthly would alleviate much hardship.
Half of all council tenants across 105 local authorities who receive the housing element of universal credit – which replaces housing benefit – are at least a month behind on their rent, with 30 per cent two months behind.
Social tenants should by default be allowed to have their rents paid direct to their landlord, rather than wait until they are in arrears to qualify for the option.
It’s not surprising then that landlords are now reluctant to take tenants. With this level of housing debt, we will only see an increase in evictions and homelessness.
Brighton Housing Trust report tenants on universal credit have arrears of around 17 per cent, compared to 1.4 per cent for tenants who are still receiving housing benefit.
Ministers may point to advanced payments but this is a short-term fix.
It’s hardly a success for a new allegedly “streamlined system” for arrears for those most in need to be inbuilt from day one.
Despite Tory claims, transitional protection in reality offers little protection. Current legislation doesn’t even cover how big losses will be handled.
Nor does it adequately define a “change of circumstances” leading to an end to protection.
But it’s not just the huge delays that are driving people into debt.
This is supposed to be a benefit for families yet
• Child credit will be limited to two per family. Work allowances have been cut. Tax credit rates have been frozen for four years.
• More than one million families will lose £2,770 a year.
• And single parents will be hardest hit, up to £200 per month worse off.
Despite the pretence of helping people back to work, the reverse is true.
How can it be right that claimants lose 63p in every extra pound earned?
How can it be right that the self-employed can be left £2,000 a year worse off because of fluctuating incomes?
And how can it be right that people who are in work but who don’t meet an earnings threshold are expected to find a new job or face sanctions?
What kind of government introduces reforms that leave the most vulnerable worse off?
• This includes a million disabled families. Those who are unable to work will be over £30 a week worse off on universal credit instead of child tax credits.
• Women will be left financially dependent as the payment goes directly to the household. Women facing domestic abuse will be left trapped and for those who escape, they will be left without money while they wait for a new claim
• And had it not been for Jeremy Corbyn’s intervention at Prime Minister’s questions, claimants would still be reliant on a 55p-a-minute helpline as they struggle with digital by default.
Poverty among those in work and on low incomes is epidemic. But universal credit combined with huge cuts to tax credits will only make it worse.
Thanks to universal credit, the Just About Managing will become the Not Managing At All.
Caroline Penn is a Labour councillor and the lead member for mental health on Brighton and Hove City Council.