Hastings and Rye MP Amber Rudd is now in charge of the Government department which controls Universal Credit, the security payment aimed at simplifying working-age benefits, while many of her constituents continue to battle with its roll out.
Since the Universal Credit scheme was first introduced in Hastings and St Leonards in December 2016, the town’s food banks have seen a use increase of 80 per cent, according to a 2018 report by the National Audit Office (NAO).
This increased demand, the report says, has cost food banks an extra £200,000 to compensate for increased opening hours and additional storage space.
According to House of Commons library analysis from October 2018, 5,289 households in Hastings and Rye claim Universal Credit while a further estimated 10,203 households on ‘legacy’ benefits and tax credits will be transferred over to the new scheme in the next few years.
The statistics show, as of June 2018, 34.1 per cent of households in Hastings already claimed Universal Credit or would be transferred over to it in the next few years.
The NAO report quoted a property agent who said ‘only one in ten private landlords’ in Hastings will rent to claimants of Universal Credit.
This was due to concerns from private landlords that tenants would rack up rent arrears, as Universal Credit replaced six separate benefits into one single monthly payment.
Ms Rudd was appointed Secretary of State for the Department of Work and Pensions on Friday, taking over from Esther McVey who resigned earlier in the week.
In her first statement after taking on the role, Ms Rudd said representing Hastings and Rye has given her ‘the experience of witnessing
what works well and what does not’ when it comes to Universal Credit.
She acknowledged that her new ministerial position will come with local challenges when she said: “The people of Hastings and Rye will always be my first priority.”
The NAO report quoted a Hastings Borough Council estimate which showed it receives almost five times as many ‘change of circumstance requests’ for Universal Credit compared to the Housing Benefit scheme it replaced.
This is despite the caseload being a third of the size of Housing Benefit, according to the NAO.
The NAO report also found the Hastings Citizens Advice was considering scaling back on what it did in order to cope with increased demand.
According to the NAO, the Hastings and Rother Credit Union ‘no longer accepted Universal Credit claimants’ as a result of Universal Credit claimants directing increased frustration towards Credit Union staff when money was delayed.
The report said funding for advisory services relating to Universal Credit was ‘uncertain and short term’ and funding from new sources was ‘needed’.
The NAO said the NHS Hastings and Rother Clinical Commissioning Group funds its local advisory services, which takes time to identify and secure and therefore ‘hampers the ability of organisations to employ high-quality advocates because of the uncertainty of future funding’.
In response to the NAO report, a DWP spokesman said: “Universal Credit (UC) replaces an out-of-date, complex benefits system with cliff edges that disincentivised work and often trapped people in unemployment.
“We have just announced that we will be increasing the amount people can earn on UC by £1,000 before their payment begins to be reduced, to ensure work always pays, and introduced £1 billion to help people moving over from the old benefits system to UC.
“The reasons why people use food banks are complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.”
After Ms Rudd’s appointment, Labour issued a statement saying the Universal Credit scheme has disadvantaged many of her constituents.
Council leader and Labour parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye Peter Chowney, in an open letter to the MP, said: “The appointment of Amber Rudd as Work and Pensions Secretary will be of particular interest to her constituents in Hastings and Rye, as Hastings was one of the first roll-out areas for Universal Credit.
“Local people here became guinea pigs for a system that had major flaws built into it and was designed to punish people for being poor rather than offering them support.
“As councillors, we’ve witnessed the impact of that, with families forced into poverty and having to use food banks.
“The stories of personal tragedy are everywhere, with people losing their homes, placing huge additional burdens on a council (Hastings Borough Council) that’s had £40 million cut from its budget since 2010.
“Then there are the unfair and humiliating PIP and ESA assessments that local people, unable to work through disability or illness, have had to endure, with many accounts of how these assessments don’t represent the true plight of the claimant.
“And of course, the WASPI women, who have campaigned locally for a fair deal for women in their 60s who have had their pensions stolen by the government.
“They’ll all be expecting her to sort this mess out, and to re-introduce fairness and compassion into the benefits and pensions system. If she fails to do that, local people will remember the cruelty shown to them by Conservative austerity policies when it comes to the next general election.”
In response, Ms Rudd acknowledged there were problems with Universal Credit ‘despite its good intentions’ but said the benefit system was ‘fair and efficient’.
She said: “I know that the Department for Work and Pensions is a force for good which helps people in need and helps people get out of poverty and into work.
“This is what we want for our families, our friends, our neighbours, and what I want for Hastings and Rye.
“It is good that employment has risen to record levels of 75 per cent as stated just recently.
“But I know there are problems with Universal Credit despite its good intentions. I’ve seen them for myself by meeting and speaking with local residents. I will be listening and learning from the expert groups in this area who do so much good work. I know it can be better.
“I will make it my role to ensure that we deliver that through our discussions within the DWP and through discussions with Treasury. We will have a fair, compassionate and efficient benefits system.”