‘Vulnerable working class people in Islington crushed by Universal Credit’

Cllr Troy Gallagher Pic: Dieter Perry

Cllr Troy Gallagher Pic: Dieter Perry - Credit: Archant

Working class people are “getting crushed by Universal Credit” and it’s fuelling mental health problems in Islington, claims a councillor.

Cllr Troy Gallagher (Lab, Bunhill) sits on the Universal Credit scrutiny committee and has been a vociferous opponent of the new benefit system.

Universal Credit is a controversial new apparatus replacing six working age benefits with a single monthly payment – but critics say the scheme is too complex and its delayed payments push people into arrears.

Cllr Gallagher told the Gazette: “What really hurts me most is the number of vulnerable working class people getting crushed by Universal Credit.

“I have tough, grown men breaking down and sobbing in my surgeries – people who wouldn’t usually cry.

“I had two people call me saying they were suicidal in the same week, luckily we managed to get them help but it’s just devastating.

“There is no flexibility or compassion and it’s doubly unfair on people earning just above the threshold, and people on zero hour contracts, who go in and out of rent arrears depending on how many shifts they get that month.

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Islington started phasing Universal Credit on June 20, and the average household rent arrears for claimants has reportedly risen to £900 since.

Cllr Gallagher also criticised the Governments wider welfare reforms, which has seen Incapacity Benefit replaced by Employment and Support Allowance [ESA], meaning sick claimants must now complete Work Capability Assessments.

“For some people with depression, anxiety or other illnesses the hard thing is getting out of bed,” said Cllr Gallagher.

“Some are so terrified they can’t leave the house, so they can’t go to the job interviews.”

He said iCope, a psychological therapies service provided by Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust, is a good resource but can’t always be accessed by sufferers.

“These people are falling through the cracks,” he said. “And losing the structure and money work brings, which elevates depression and mental health problems.

“I have noticed a spike in mental health problems among young people in my ward – it’s a big issue.”

“I grew up in a low income working class family,” he said. “And my father badly injured his back and was on long-term sick leave for years – if Universal Credit existed then we wouldn’t have survived.”

“There is no flexibility or compassion and it’s unfair for people earning just too much to be entitled, and for people on zero hour contracts.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal Credit [UC] simplifies an out-of-date, complex system with evidence showing that claimants are getting into work faster and staying in work longer.

“Rent arrears are complicated and they cannot be attributed to a single cause. Our research shows that many people join Universal Credit with pre-existing arrears, but the proportion of people with arrears falls by a third after four months on UC.

“We are working closely with local authorities and have provided Islington Council with funding to help with the introduction of Universal Credit. We have also invested up to £200m in Universal Support which provides budgeting advice and digital support, delivered by local authorities.”