Universal credit could lead to a 'benefit crisis'

Barnsley is heading for a benefits crisis which could see thousands fall into debt and rent arrears across the borough reach record levels.

That grim warning comes from Jackie Walker, senior official at the Barnsley branch of the South Yorkshire Credit Union.

Her fears are that changes in the benefit system which will see a new allowance, universal credit, replace up to nine separate benefits or allowances will leave many unable to manage their finances.

Jackie says many people on benefits are used to having money for their rent and other bills deducted before they receive them, leaving an amount which they can spend as they please.

But, she warns, when the universal credit is introduced over the next three years starting in April, thousands of people will be given all their entitlement up front and be expected to pay their rent and all other bills themselves.

The payments will also be made monthly - as opposed to weekly - which, she says, will make it even harder for those not used to managing such large amounts of money.

The government says the new system will empower claimants and help them learn how manage their own budget.

But Jackie says in reality that will not happen and fears people will fail to set enough money aside causing debt and rent arrears to soar.

"What they are going to do is give someone who has never directly paid their own rent or utility bills what will appear to them to be a large amount of money several weeks in advance and expect them to work out exactly what proportion of that money is for what bill and pay it exactly and on time," she said.

"The theory might sound great but the facts will be very very different. Just moving from a weekly payment to monthly would have caused enough problems on its own.

"But to also give claimants the responsibility for rent and other bills means many will not cope.

Jackie says, although many experts have long advised a change and a simplification in the benefits system, the universal credit is: "Too much, too quickly and too drastic.

"David Cameron needs a reality check, he needs to come here to Barnsley and see the people queuing for loans at the credit union and see and hear for himself what these people are trying to cope with."