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‘Complicated and intimidating’: Emily Thornberry blasts Universal Credit system at Holloway conference

PUBLISHED: 19:26 17 September 2018 | UPDATED: 14:10 02 October 2018

Emily Thornberry: champion of votes at 16. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Emily Thornberry: champion of votes at 16. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

PA Wire/PA Images

Emily Thornberry today branded Universal Credit a “complicated and intimidating system” while speaking at a community conference in Holloway Road.

Emily Thornberry: champion of votes at 16. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA WireEmily Thornberry: champion of votes at 16. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The shadow foreign secretary addressed a large gathering at London Metropolitan University, which was organised by Islington Advice Alliance with funding from the Big Lottery Fund.

The conference, “Universal Credit: a whole community response”, brought together experts from community and voluntary organisations to share knowledge and debate the impact of this welfare reform on people claiming benefits.

Striking a personal tone, the Islington South MP told attendees: “I remember when I was a kid my mum was on benefits – we had no money and my mum was so terrified about going into debt.

“The idea of sinking into under is terrifying and it’s something that well-heeled middle-class people can’t understand.”

She said the fundamental concept of Universal Credit, which she expressed as “making work pay”, is a worthwhile objective.

But added: “The penny dropped for George Osborne and he realised the new system was so mind-blowingly complicated it could be a vehicle for cuts – it’s politically and morally wrong.

“I have had people come into my surgery and they are frightened. People want to be able to find a safe space but if they can’t trust the benefit system, the very system on which our society was built, then who are we to blame them when they are too scared to work?”

Universal Credit is a new system replacing six working-age benefits with a single monthly payment, which began being fully implemented in Islington on June 20.

Since then 1,700 people in the borough have claimed it and there has reportedly been a spike in rent arrears, with the average household debt for claimants rising to £900.

Speaking after the event, Ms Thornberry told the Gazette: “Universal Credit is in many ways badly thought out – people are expected to go into debt and it’s a really complicated and intimidating system.

“The only thing the government is clear about is they are using it as a way to cut back on people’s benefits.

“It’s just so frustrating because I know many of my constituents will end up having their benefits cut.”

Mulat Haregot, of Islington’s Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic and Refugee (BAMER) Advice Alliance, said people from the groups he works with have great difficulty accessing the new system due to language barriers and a lack of computer skills.

He reported some BAMER groups in Islington have been left “financially deprived with nothing to live on” as a result of the new benefits.

Islington Law Centre’s director Ruth Hayes said her organisation has so far helped 67 people claim Universal Credit, but she says this puts additional pressure on time and resources.

She added: “At the law centre we are seeing people in much more extreme poverty then we are used to seeing them.”

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