Benefit ‘madness’ sparks rent debt crisis

Council leader Gordan Low.
Council leader Gordan Low.

A staggering 92 per cent of East Dunbartonshire tenants on Universal Credit (UC) are in rent arrears, and crisis grants have risen sharply.

The amount the council has had to give to cash-strapped residents has leaped by almost 50 per cent, and people on UC now account for more than a quarter of all rent arrears owed to the council.

The figures were released as Strathkelvin and Bearsden MSP Rona Mackay made her latest appeal for an urgent halt to what’s planned to be an accelerated roll-out of the controversial new system.

She argues plans to rapidly extend a “bitter and cruel” scheme that has proved to be causing major problems is “simply madness”.

Citizens Advice Scotland is also among those urging a rethink of a system said to leave many people in desperate straits.

A main complaint is that people are having to wait six weeks for their first UC payment to come through, and have consequently been forced into debt.

This in turn has placed an added burden on the council, which has increased discretionary payments to people who, says council leader Gordan Low, have nowhere else to turn to.

He said: “At the end of July the council had 264 tenants on UC.

“Of these, 92 per cent are in arrears to a total of £234,858 - 26 per cent of the total rent arrears.”

He added: “The council is also incurring significant additional administrative costs

because of the added complexities and processes of the UC system, with additional resources being deployed to UC functions at the risk of other services and performance.”

Councillor Low says the amount being shelled out for discretionary housing payments is set to rise further during this financial year.

Crisis grant applications have more than doubled since the full service was introduced.

Councillor Low said: “The people who are impacted by UC have nowhere else to turn for support

and public services are left struggling to cope under the pressure.”

Rona Mackay MSP, in a Holyrood speech, said: “The accelerated roll-out of Universal Credit mustn’t be allowed to happen.

“The words ‘Universal Credit’ are misleading and cruel because they give the illusion of something for everyone, whereas the reality is that it is anything but that.

“It’s just another means of the Tories imposing austerity.

“When I was a former board member of East Dunbartonshire Citizens Advice Bureau, I was all too aware of the fears of the bureau’s staff before the implementation of the Universal Credit system.

“These fears have come true.”

She added: “People are sinking into poverty with having to wait six weeks for their first payment, forced to become indebted.

“The application can only be made online, which is a disaster for many disabled people, and on average claimants have had to call the helpline ten times.

“Universal credit is emblematic of the bitter and cruel treatment of people under this UK Tory Government.

“Thankfully, the Scottish Government’s approach to shaping our own social security system could not be more different, even with the limited powers that we are receiving.

“In the name of humanity, will the Tories admit that the system is a disaster and stop the roll-out?

“To err is human, but to compound a mistake is simply madness”.