New benefits roll-out in Wigan shames UK effort
The town hall and employment bosses have praised the smooth roll-out of the full Universal Credit service in the borough.
Wigan Council and the Jobcentre Plus said months of work behind the scenes mean the controversial benefits shake-up has had minimal impact locally.
Universal Credit, which combines six previous benefits packages into one single payment, has been heavily criticised with the latest scathing assessment coming from the National Audit Office (NAO).
However, the authorities say the horror tales of claimants left out of pocket and struggling to get the money they are entitled to while the system unnecessarily burdens the taxpayer are in distinct contrast to the picture in Wigan.
Last month’s jobs figures showed only small rises and falls in the numbers of people on out-of-work benefits in the borough, with the claimant count actually coming down in May compared to April even though there are more people reliant on assistance now than there were in January.
However, fears that the full roll-out would lead to the unemployment figures soaring through the roof would so far appear to be unfounded.
Penny Applegate, partnership manager for the Jobcentre Plus, said: “We feel it has gone very smoothly. There haven’t been any issues.
“We have been working in very close co-operation with the local authority in all sorts of ways, bringing people together to get them support and jobs.
“There have also been some budget changes which made sure delays that were there before have been taken out.
“We’ve also helped people understand better what needs to be done to make a claim. The more people know what evidence they need to prove and what evidence is required the more they can submit their claims without any delays.”
Wigan Council has worked over a period of months with Citizens Advice and credit union Unify to ensure people were ready for Universal Credit as part of an ongoing money management campaign.
The town hall says working on the trial scheme for several years has helped the borough get ready for the full roll-out.
It also said it was continuing to provide support for those needing help with the new system.
Lesley O’Halloran, assistant director for customer services, said: “We have been a pilot for Universal Credit since July 2013 and have been supporting our residents with the welfare reform changes through a number of ways to ensure they receive the correct benefits, including helping them get online and through our personalised welfare support service.
“Taking an individual approach means officers can get a clear picture of a person’s needs and situation and they can provide the right support from the first time they attend.
“Through offering longer-term support the cause of problems can be addressed and someone can make steps towards becoming resilient and self-sufficient.”
Wigan Council is continuing to offer free Be Online sessions at Wigan and Leigh libraries to make residents more digital savvy as Universal Credit is entirely web-based.
Claimants need an email address and an account with a bank, building society or credit union.
Welfare rights outreach surgeries can also help anyone needing advice with benefits and claims.
The council stressed anyone struggling to make ends meet can still request advance payments which will typically be paid back over 12 months.
However, MPs have given a scathing verdict on the benefits reforms.
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy said: “Every day I speak with families who are struggling to make ends meet because of delayed or incorrect payments, while the new assessment process is costing taxpayers four times the amount of the benefit system it’s designed to replace.
“Since the roll-out of the Universal Credit pilot scheme in Wigan the Government has repeatedly failed to listen to our concerns, and ignored calls to pause and fix this obviously broken system.”
Makerfield MP Yvonne Fovargue said people were falling into arrears and debt problems under the system.
For more information about Universal Credit and the support available, ring the helpline on 0800 328 5644, speak to a Jobcentre Plus work coach or visit www.wigan.gov.uk/universalcredit