The rollout of Universal Credit and the impact it is having on local residents has been criticised by councillors.
Locally Universal Credit has been in place across most of Wrexham since October 2017 – with the remaining areas in Chirk and Whitchurch going live back in May.
A report presented to members of the homes and environment committee today explained that in Wrexham the Universal Credit ‘caseload’ is at 4,587 people, with 1,686 of those in employment.
Currently there are 1,040 residents who receive the new single benefit who are in collective debts of more than £630,000 – an average of £608 per household.
It is not known how many tenants in private accommodation in Wrexham are also in receipt of Universal Credit.
Speaking today Cllr David Griffiths, lead member for housing, told committee members that Universal Credit had caused a “significant impact on rent arrears”. However it was noted that the “hard work of staff” has meant that Wrexham is not in as “bad a position as elsewhere”.
Cllr Griffiths said: “It is a changing beast. It is a beast in the sense that there are people out there suffering.
“I can say that Wrexham are doing their upmost to make sure the suffering is the least possible.
“The real sufferers are the people who are in receipt of Universal Credit who aren’t getting the support. The people who make the rules aren’t in our world.
“We are where we are and we have to make the best of this for our tenants and customers as a whole.”
Matthew Evans, Wrexham Council’s benefit manager, told the committee that locally there are 267 cases in arrears of £1,000 or more.
He also explained that although Universal Credit is worked over 52 weeks, next the financial year will see a 53 week year – which will leave tenants a week short of payment.
Cllr Carrie Harper said that the rollout of Universal Credit is “pushing people into poverty” and the way it has been rolled out it “incompetent”.
She continued: “I don’t think some of the figures in this report are surprising. We all know we’ve got tenants who are always going to struggle with budgeting and the transfer over to Universal Credit.
“You do struggle to understand the rationale for Universal Credit when you see reports saying it’s going to cost more than the old system and reports saying more people are turning to foodbanks.
“It is not incentivising people into work, it is pushing people into poverty. The way its been rolled out is incompetent.”
One of the main concerns raised by councillors was the reliance on computers and the internet for those needing to access their online journal.
Cllr Alan Edwards said: “Is there any chance we can have drop-in days at the estate offices for an hour or so and let tenants know, so that people who are scared of computers can have advice?
“I think we should help those people who are not IT literate.”
Cllr Graham Rogers added: “What do you do if a council tenant who is on Universal Credit but is not computer literate, or have access to go online. What do you do to help them?”
The committee was told that there are IT facilities in place at local estate offices and that staff are on hand to assist with those who need help.
The officer added: “As long as they tell us, we will help. If the barrier is that they don’t have Wifi or the internet at home, if they tell us we can assist them.”
There were also calls for clarification over if anyone had been evicted from their property and how officers are engaging with tenants to make sure this doesn’t happen.
Mr Evans told councillors that officers “look at evictions as a last resort and have proactive conversations as early as possible.”
Concerns were also raised about changes to the delivery of Assisted Digital and budgeting support, which will be moved to the Citizens Advice Bureau from April 2019.
This includes the withdrawal of funding from the council – which currently pays for two staff members based in the Job Centre – to deliver this service.
Mr Evans explained: “We don’t know yet how the service will work from April, but putting it in context we’re paying for two members of staff to be in the Job Centre Plus to assist with digital and funding support. We can’t do that next year.”
It was also noted that discussions with Citizens Advice are taking place on a local level.
The committee agreed to receive an update on Universal Credit in Wrexham along with inviting a representative from the DWP (Department of Work and Pensions) to the next meeting.
They also voted in favour of lobbying the government over the issue surrounding a 53 week year and how this will impact tenants.
There is an ongoing thread about Universal Credit on the Wrexham.com Forums here…