Hartlepool MP tells Parliament benefit reform is leaving people ‘desperate, suicidal and starving’

Hartlepool MP Mike Hill. Picture by FRANK REID
Hartlepool MP Mike Hill. Picture by FRANK REID

MP Mike Hill says Hartlepool is already seeing the damaging effects of the Government’s controversial Universal Credit as he joined calls to pause its roll-out to the rest of the country.

He told Parliament he has seen people “desperate, starving and suicidal” since Universal Credit was rolled out in Hartlepool in December last year.

The pace of its roll-out is set to be ramped up from this month with 50 Jobcentres moving to the service every month.

Despite Labour winning a House of Commons vote calling for a pause due to concerns, Prime Minister Theresa May will not delay its roll-out.

Hartlepool’s Citizens Advice bureau says claimants are being forced into debt due to a wait of up to six weeks for their first payment and called on the Government to review the way it works.

Mr Hill told Parliament: “Universal credit was rolled out in Hartlepool in December 2016 and its implementation has continued to cause real difficulty and suffering ever since.

Joe Michna.

Joe Michna.

“I have seen people in the most desperate circumstances starving, suicidal, broke and broken.

“I have seen people worried about keeping a roof over their head, and families in poverty, forced to use foodbanks.”

Conservative MPs did not take part in the vote on the motion which was non-binding.

Mr Hill added: “I look forward to hearing the Government’s excuses as to why they will be pressing ahead in the face of such opposition.”

Grahame Morris MP, Easington.

Grahame Morris MP, Easington.

There are currently 768 single parents living in Hartlepool claiming Universal credit according to Department of Work and Pension data.

Citizens Advice Hartlepool is calling for the Government to slow down its roll-out until the difficulties reported have been reviewed.

Manager Joe Michna said: “We share MPs’ concerns, It has been a tough situation for many and remains so.

“A lot of people are getting themselves into all types of difficulty, particularly rent arrears.

Work and Pensions secretary David Gauke. Photo credit: PA Wire.

Work and Pensions secretary David Gauke. Photo credit: PA Wire.

“By far the biggest problem we have seen is the significant delay from applying for Universal Credit to receiving their first payment.

“It can vary from four to six weeks.

“What you are asking people to do is to survive on virtually nothing until they get paid.”

Mr Michna added claimants struggle to budget as Universal Credit is paid monthly instead of weekly under their old benefits.

And he said it needed to be made easier for people to apply for advance payments to tide them over during the wait.

Hartlepool Foodbank co-ordinator Abi Knowles told the Mail last month that demand has grown since Universal Credit was introduced in town.

Easington MP Grahame Morris said he was concerned for constituents in rural areas as Universal Credit can only be applied for online.

He added: “If Parliament has debated an issue and come to a conclusion as they did 299 to nil then the Government should act accordingly.

“It is putting two fingers up to democracy. It’s not acceptable.”

Mrs May told the commons: “It is a simpler system. It is a system that encourages people to get into the workplace.

“It is a system that is working because more people are getting into work.”

The Government has decided to scrap charges of up to 55p a minute to call a Universal Credit helpline.

Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke told a commons committee 81% of claimants were now receiving their benefits in full within six weeks and 96% within 10 weeks.

He added he was “keen” for more claimants to apply for cash advance payments.

What is Universal Credit?

It is a single monthly payment which sees different working-age benefits, such as housing benefit and tax credits, encompassed into one streamlined scheme.

Replacing a bundle of means-tested benefits, it includes the use of sanctions, and is also designed to encourage people to take up work by ensuring they will always be better off having a job.

How does it work?

Universal Credit replaces housing benefit, child tax credit, income support, working tax credit, income-based jobseeker’s allowance and income-related employment and support allowance - creating one payment.

Claimants may have to wait up to six weeks before they receive their first payment under the scheme, due to it being paid monthly in arrears.

It is paid directly into a bank account, and involves claimants who receive help with the cost of rent, having to pay their landlord directly.

What does Universal Credit cover?

It is made up of a standard allowance, and includes extra amounts for those who are eligible in areas such as housing, those who have children, or those who have a disability or health condition.

Universal Credit can be claimed by those in and out of work, with no limit on the amount of hours a claimant can work per week.

But the amount paid decreases as claimants earn more.

A claim for Universal Credit is submitted online by the claimant.

When was Universal Credit introduced and who was responsible?

The welfare reform was spearheaded by Iain Duncan Smith. The former Tory leader oversaw the launch of Universal Credit as work and pensions secretary.