“From start to finish the whole thing has been a nightmare,” Philip Baynes stammers while recounting his time spent as a guinea pig for the Universal Credit (UC) system.
He moved to Croydon from Lambeth in July this year, and has seen first-hand the issues with the controversial method for distributing benefits conceived by the former work and pensions minister, Iain Duncan-Smith, in 2011 as a way of rolling six separate benefits into one.
Croydon was one of the first boroughs in the country to begin the early roll out of the full UC system, and as such has acted as a litmus test for a new system of benefits which are planned to be rolled out across the country by 2022.
So far this is a test that UC has failed.
Across Croydon, there are stories of how the new system has suffered from systematic failings, especially when dealing with the most vulnerable.
Baynes moved to Croydon from Lambeth, an area not yet to be affected by UC.
While living there he claimed the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) which is given to those who cannot work because of a long term illness or disability.
When he moved to Croydon he was told that he would only need to change the address on his claim and would then carry on receiving his benefits.
This turned out not to be the case – the first of many errors made in his case. Instead Baynes was expected to completely re apply for UC.
He explained: “I suffer from depression and anxiety so the whole ordeal has been horrible.”
“Because of my conditions, I struggle with phone conversations and have to rely heavily on my dad to help applying for things like this.”
For Baynes this mix up had disastrous effects. “This meant I couldn’t make my new claim for UC until August 13,” he said.
“In this application I asked to have my rent backdated to July 25, the day I moved into my property, but was told I wouldn’t be allowed, meaning I have lost £467.50 in rent because of moving.”
Baynes finally received his first payment on September 12, eight weeks after he first moved to Croydon, which put huge amounts of stress on to him and his family.
“Having to wait for all this time meant I was in rent arrears and I had to use up the little savings I had.”
“The whole ordeal made my anxiety and depression considerably worse,” he said, “I felt completely betrayed by the system that is meant to protect the most vulnerable. The thing has been a shambles and impacted my mental health massively.”
“I feel so sorry for all the other people who will have to go through this.”
However, this was not the end of the problems for Baynes. When he got his initial payment he noticed there was considerably less than he had been previously receiving.
“Throughout the whole of this process, I was always told my claim would remain the same but when it came in I found out that they had cut my severe disability premium and enhanced disability premium totalling to £78.35 a week,” he said. “No one told me this would happen and I’m now really struggling financially after being given no time to prepare.”
Sadly, Baynes is not alone. There are reports from all of the trial boroughs about how this complex new system is making mistakes.
Most recently a study commissioned by Croydon and Southwark Councils linked increases in rent, debts and food bank usage to UC.
One of the main problems outlined in the Safe as Houses report was the effect UC could have on those tenants in rented accommodation.
The report acknowledged the lengthy and often complicated waiting period during the change over that can leave claimants without a source of income for six weeks, and in some cases longer.
“Claimants are typically waiting longer than they anticipated for their first payment and there is lots of uncertainty around when payments will start,” the study says.
This in turn means tenants fall into debt or have to rely on family members and friends, the report explains.
“Arrears build up most quickly in the first few weeks. This implies that changes to payment timings could significantly reduce the initial build-up of arrears, which the data suggests people often struggle to repay,” it says.
The study found that by 20 weeks those who received UC were on average £156 in arrears compared to those who still received housing benefits who on average overpaid by 4 per cent of the rent due.
The report was the latest in a string of embarrassing setbacks for the Prime Minister Theresa May.
Last week saw a Commons defeat for May when a Labour motion to pause the roll-out of the flagship benefit scheme was passed by 299 to zero, in which all but one Conservative MP, Sarah Wollaston, abstained from voting. Though not binding for the government, it was a reminder of the strength of feeling against the changes.
Jim Fitzpatrick, MP for Poplar and Limehouse, is also anxious about similar issues in his constituency. He told EastLondonLines: “I agree that our benefit system needs to be simplified and we all share a desire for people to be in work, but both must be achieved in a safe and dignified manner.”
“UC Full Service will be rolled out to 400,000 people over the winter, and nearly 7 million over this parliament but it is simply not fit for purpose.”
“Citizen’s Advice found that 79 per cent of those in debt on UC had priority debts such as rent or council tax,” he said. “Many claimants do not have the financial capacity to live for six weeks without receiving help and this is the primary driver of rising debt and rent arrears under the programme.”
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