Universal Credit woes hit Lochaber families hard

NO F24 foodbank 01

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Lochaber organisations aiding those in financial hardship, say problems with the controversial new Universal Credit are making things much worse.

Lochaber Foodbank says it is faced with an ever growing number of people in need due to difficulties with the new benefit regime, while Lochaber Citizens Advice Bureau says Universal Credit problems are now the second biggest area of work for its staff.

Their comments come after the Lochaber Times was contacted by one Fort William family who told us they had now been without Universal Credit money for nine weeks.

The couple, who have a one-year-old child and have another on the way, said their situation had seen them forced to turn to the Lochaber Foodbank for help three times recently for everything from food and nappies to coal.

‘We’ve had no money for food or electricity and the past three weeks have seen us living off stuff from the foodbank,’ the man told us.

Lochaber Foodbank manager Alex McConachie says this particular family’s situation is just one case of many families in similar situations.

‘It’s heartbreaking. We are seeing more and more people needing our help because of problems with Universal Credit – it’s unreal,’ said Mr McConachie.

‘And it’s only going to get worse this month with some businesses closing for the winter – that means more people signing on to Universal Credit and they’re going to have to wait five or six weeks before they get any money.’

The Fort resident who spoke to us explained that after signing on for Universal Credit in April everything at first worked relatively smoothly.

‘I had some seasonal work that finished at the end of August,’ he  explained. ‘The problem with Universal Credit started after that when HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) passed our information to Universal Credit.

‘The Universal Credit people said they were choosing to adjust the information, despite HMRC telling them it was correct.

‘We really don’t know what to do next. There’s not been a lot of work available and the weather is getting colder.’

Stephen Marshall, manager of Lochaber Citizens Advice Bureau, said Universal Credit problems were now the second biggest area of work for his staff.

‘The complexity of the whole thing means it is not accessible to the people who need it most. The online claiming element makes it very difficult and the initial delay in payments causes problems with things like rent arrears,’ said Mr Marshall.

‘And as an agency that issues foodbank vouchers, we have seen the demand for these rise massively since the start of Universal Credit.’

Highland Council’s Lochaber Area Committee recently heard that Universal Credit continued to be what council officials called  a ‘significant contributory factor’ in rent arrears and that this would only worsen as the number of people on the new benefit scheme increased.

Local MP Ian Blackford says Universal Credit has been a complete disaster since its roll-out began.

He said: ‘The evidence and human cost has been piling up for some time.  The roll-out of Universal Credit must be halted until all the many problems can be fixed – there is no alternative.’