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Research shows families in Tower Hamlets struggling to cope with move to Universal Credit

New research commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council has revealed that parents with young children have gone without food and had to survive the winter without adequate heating after being moved onto Universal Credit.

The council’s report, produced by the Child Poverty Action Group, looks at the experiences of families and key support organisations grappling with the latest benefit reform in one of London’s most deprived boroughs.

It highlights a catalogue of problems including confusion for applicants, delays with the move from legacy benefits, complex online forms and payments that have been miscalculated or unexpectedly stopped. The report also calls into question whether Universal Credit’s key aim – incentivising a return to employment – is working.

John Biggs, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, said: “We were one of the first boroughs to be fully transitioned onto Universal Credit so we are well aware that its introduction has presented serious challenges for our residents.

“In response, I have introduced a £6.6 million tackling poverty fund, which includes more than £1 million specifically targeted at providing urgent advice and support for those transitioning onto Universal Credit.

“This report is invaluable in helping to make sure we can direct that money in the most effective way so that we continue to deliver on our commitment to help the most vulnerable in our borough live healthier and happier lives.”

Researchers from the Child Poverty Action Group met with claimants and support organisations in Tower Hamlets between October 2018 and July 2019.

They found that the transition to Universal Credit has been problematic for claimants, with many confused about what, when and how to claim and some left without money during the transition period.

A number of problems with payments were reported, with some families finding they varied unpredictably and were often miscalculated or unexpectedly stopped.

Claimants who were working generally found that incentives to increase their hours were not effective. Because Universal Credit is reduced immediately after someone’s earnings go up, claimants often felt that it was hard to increase their income by working more.

Many claimants were struggling to get by and were in debt and arrears. This was exacerbated by the system of payment in arrears and the five-week wait at the start of claims. Some had to borrow money from friends or family, or take out credit cards or loans. One family was only able to heat one room at the time they were interviewed, despite having a young child.

Most claimants felt as though they were worse off under Universal Credit than under the legacy benefit system. Nearly all support organisations agreed that their clients’ incomes were not enough and that other reforms such as the benefit cap had made things worse.

Claimants were found to be making significant sacrifices for their children – in one case, not eating for several days – and many noted that their children were missing out on life opportunities. One mother described feeling guilty that her children could not go anywhere in the summer holidays except the local park.

Councillor Rachel Blake, Deputy Mayor and Cabinet Member for Tackling Poverty, said: “The experiences of these families, especially those with young children, bring home the challenge that the rollout of Universal Credit has presented.

“I am proud of the resources we’ve put in place to support the most vulnerable in our borough. However, this report makes it clear that we must look closely at its recommendations and redouble our efforts or adjust our approach where needed.

“We will also continue to lobby the Government to urge them to listen to these families and put in place the changes needed to avoid others living through the same struggles.”

Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, Alison Garnham, said: “As a society we believe it’s right to have a social security system that protects people from poverty and helps them to get better prospects. But this research shows that Universal Credit isn’t achieving those aims. Many claimants simply didn’t have enough money to live on – especially during the five-week wait for the first payment. That has serious consequences for children’s well-being – in Tower Hamlets as elsewhere.

“We applaud Tower Hamlets’ decision to investigate and confront the problems in Universal Credit and hope this report will lead to a better experience for claimants in the borough. Nationally, the move to Universal Credit must now stop until ministers can demonstrate that it is fit for purpose.”