Wigan MPs give withering assessment of benefits shake-up

MPs from the borough have given a withering assessment of the controversial new benefits shake-up, describing the huge local problems caused.

Friday, 26th October 2018, 10:36 am
Updated Friday, 26th October 2018, 1:18 pm
Lisa Nandy

Lisa Nandy and Yvonne Fovargue, who represent Wigan and Makerfield, said the roll-out of Universal Credit (UC) had left many Wiganers facing financial crisis or dependent on foodbanks.

The system administering the payment, which combines half a dozen previous benefits into one, is riddled with huge delays which leave residents on the verge of destitution, the MPs said.

Ms Nandy and Ms Fovargue also slated government officials for not listening enough to those running the UC pilot schemes, which included Wigan borough, and then not reacting to the difficulties encountered.

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Ms Nandy also said constituents who had spoken to her did not agree with the recent assessment of Jobcentre Plus staff in Wigan that the local system and employees were well-prepared for UC’s introduction.

Ms Nandy said: “We’ve been warning government ministers about the problems with UC since Wigan was chosen to trial it in 2013.

“We saw the chaos earlier than most areas of the country and our reports gave the government a chance to pause and fix the system.

“Instead, they’ve ignored repeated warnings and pressed ahead across the country, with devastating consequences.

“Claimants who were moved to UC had to wait for months to have their housing benefit set up and paid to their landlords, leaving many in rent arrears for the first time in their lives.

“Too many people were left terrified of losing their homes and unable to see how they could get their heads back above water. The stress and anxiety of having to live every day in this situation is immense.

“The system has failed people with disabilities more than any other group. I’ve helped hundreds of constituents who were told they were fit for work even though they couldn’t stand, lift objects or walk more than a few yards.

“We have won most of their cases on appeal but, in the meantime, they’ve been left starving and unable to pay their rent.

“We warned government repeatedly about the problems of putting UC online.

“Most people in the Wigan trial had to set up bank accounts for the first time. We helped them to do this only for local bank branches to close.

“Claimants were also required to use online services to claim and to seek work. If they could not do so at home, which was often the case, they were told to use their local libraries or their local Jobcentre.

“This added extra travel costs and left them having to go through this stressful process in public, or with Jobcentre staff who, it was reported to me, did not understand the system themselves.”

Ms Fovargue quoted a number of damning statistics outlining the hardship UC has caused in the borough.

She told a parliamentary debate on UC: “Full service roll-out was done in Wigan in April and there has been a steady increase in claimants.

“Currently around 7,000 people in the borough are on UC, nearly 3,000 of them council tenants. Around 22,000 people are likely to eventually migrate to UC, most of them in work.

“Tenants on UC have a 97 per cent likelihood of going into arrears, with a 90 per cent likelihood of breaching £200 arrears and 60 per cent chance of breaching £600. Much of this is due to the waiting period.

“An eight-week delay isn’t unususal in Wigan. Foodbanks in Wigan have seen a massive increase in demand. Since the roll-out the already-high demand has increased by 50 per cent.

“One hundred and twelve people a month in Wigan ask for help from a range of council services with UC on complex benefits issues, and 92 per cent of those say they have no food or money, mainly due to delays in payments.

“If you couple the roll-out with slashing local welfare schemes there is a perfect storm.

“Twenty years as a CAB manager taught me people’s lives are complicated.

“The system has to be flexible, to allow for a vast range of circumstances, to be easy to access, to have enough resources, to operate from day one and for no vulnerable group to be worse off from the implementation. I am afraid UC is failing.”