Benefits change will affect thousands

Universal Credit is being fully introduced in the Forest of Dean this Wednesday (22nd) and is destined to affect thousands of people who currently claim benefits.

Two Rivers Housing believes up to two-thirds of tenants in its 4,000 homes could ultimately be affected by this change, and fears some will face serious hardship as a consequence.

The housing association has been advising tenants of working age who claim housing and other benefits, to be prepared and take steps to minimise the impact as much as they can. Its advice includes:

  • Making sure they have a bank or building society account the money can be paid into.
  • Getting online. All claims must be made and managed via the internet.
  • Making savings wherever possible – a few pounds here and there will help.
  • Budgeting to be able to manage the monthly Universal Credit payment.

One tenant has first-hand experience of Universal Credit*. She lost her job in July 2016 and risked losing her Cinderford home too when Universal Credit failed to pay her rent. She believed it was being paid directly to Two Rivers for her, but the payments weren’t being made and she ended up more than £1,000 in arrears and facing court action.

With advice from Two Rivers Housing and the Gloucester Law Centre, and the support of her family, the 26-year-old managed to repay a large sum and arrange to cover the rest in instalments, which meant she could keep her flat.

Now she is back on her feet and doing well. She is working full-time again, she does not receive any benefits and she is gradually repaying her family the money she borrowed to help her though that difficult period.

She said: “Between July and April I had no money coming in at all. I didn’t have a penny to my name. It made me really poorly and I lost weight through the worry of it all. I had been homeless before and I really didn’t want to go through that again.

“My advice to other people is don’t struggle alone, as there are people out there who can help you. Keep a close check on what is happening, keep ringing them to make sure they’re doing what they say and make notes of everything – dates, times, names, departments. I did and it really helped my case in court. I just wish I’d kept on top of it more from the beginning as I thought my rent was being paid for me and was devastated when I found out it wasn’t and my home was at risk.

“It was a terrible time and I don’t know how I coped, but I’ve come through it, and I feel good about having got to a pretty comfortable place again.

“If it wasn’t for my family, Julia at Two Rivers and the advice from the Gloucester Law Centre team I don’t know what would have happened to me. They have all been absolutely amazing and really helped me get through it. I can’t thank them enough.”

(* Universal Credit first arrived in the Forest of Dean in 2016 when it was launched for a small and specific group of people – those who were single and whose circumstances had changed.)

Rachel Smith, Head of Housing at Two Rivers, explained that the biggest problem for most people would be the delay in receiving their money. “At the moment, it could take up to two months for the first payment to come through, so they have to find other ways to cover their bills during this time. However, we hope the Government will listen to people’s experiences and speed up the process so payments are made more quickly.

“It’s also unfortunate that this comes at Christmas, when many families find money tight anyway. We work closely with the local foodbanks – including having our own collection point for staff to donate to – and we know they are already experiencing increased demand, which will only get worse.”

Universal Credit only affects people of working age and the first people to transfer will be those whose circumstances change. There are many criteria for this but it could involve someone moving into or out of their home, a child turning five or a variation in their work-related income.

Claimants will be notified by the Department of Work and Pensions, the local council or the Jobcentre when they need to apply, and their application must be made online.

Two Rivers Housing has been running courses and one-off training events for tenants with limited or no experience of using the internet, to help them prepare. It has also been inviting tenants to pay a little extra on their rent each month, to give them a reserve they can fall back on whilst they wait for their claim to be processed and first payment to be made.

Enquiries to the housing association’s busy debt and welfare team have increased steadily in recent months as more people ask for help with managing their money, and the team is recruiting an extra member of staff to help meet the demand.

“This is a major change,” explained Rachel Smith. “The problem is people won’t know exactly when they will be affected – it could be next week, next month or next year – so our advice is to start planning now, for when it does happen.”

Information about Universal Credit can be found on the Two Rivers Housing website – www.tworivershousing.org.uk – and at www.gov.uk/universal-credit .