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'Charity shops too expensive': Soaring rent arrears and food bank referrals for Universal Credit claimants in Islington

PUBLISHED: 17:48 29 October 2019 | UPDATED: 18:08 29 October 2019

Cllr Troy Gallagher and Kathy Weston from Islington Food Bank outside Islington Town Hall. Picture: Islington Council

Cllr Troy Gallagher and Kathy Weston from Islington Food Bank outside Islington Town Hall. Picture: Islington Council

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Universal Credit claimants in Islington Council have accumulated nearly four times the rent arrears as people on Housing Benefit.

The Department for Work & Pensions is being hit for how it assesses people suffering from epilepsy. More than half the people applying to transfer onto the new system have been denied government support. The benefits are meant to ensure they can live independently. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA.The Department for Work & Pensions is being hit for how it assesses people suffering from epilepsy. More than half the people applying to transfer onto the new system have been denied government support. The benefits are meant to ensure they can live independently. Picture: Kirsty O'Connor/PA.

As of September 30, 3,176 council tenants were on Universal Credit and, of these, 72 per cent (2,285) were in rent arrears with an average debt of £1,295.

This compares to 9,969 Housing Benefit claimants in council properties, of whom 39pc (3,895) were in rent arrears with an average debt of £353.

"I think it's a huge indictment of just how terrible the government is," said Cllr Troy Gallagher (Lab, Bunhill).

"I have a resident who was on Universal Credit and stuck arrears. He was really struggling for some time, before I was able to straighten it out for him.

"He came to me absolutely overwhelmed with being stuck in a continuous cycle, and he tried as hard as he could to get out of it with two part time jobs, both zero hour contracts."

Cllr Gallagher is deputy chair of Islington's policy and performance scrutiny committee, which has closely monitored the impacts of Universal Credit since it was introduced to the borough in June.

Since then, Islington Council has made 123 payments through its residents support scheme to help vulnerable claimants.

A file image of a job centre. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA ArchiveA file image of a job centre. Picture: Nick Ansell/PA Archive

These include 31 crisis payments totalling £8,858 - to help with essential daily costs, like food. The town hall also made 92 discretionary housing payments amounting to £19,616 - to meet shortfalls in rent caused by changes to benefits.

In total, the council has awarded £288,836 in one-off payments to alleviate the burden for people moving onto Universal Credit, awarding an average of £134.53 per household.

Islington's deputy mayor, Cllr Gallagher, praised the council for taking such steps to safeguard vulnerable people, but slammed successive Tory governments for slashing the town hall's core budget by 70 per cent since 2010, then introducing Universal Credit.

"Another individual came to me," Cllr Gallagher added, "she was actually at the point of having a nervous breakdown and was having suicidal thoughts.

"She lost her job. Went on to Universal Credit, thought it was a short term measure, but low and behold she's still on Universal Credit."

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Cllr Gallagher persuaded her not to hurt herself and has helped her access support.

He added: "That all just begs the bigger question, and it is a question, not just with the poverty angle, but of how pernicious Universal Credit is."

"That's how cruel this system is, it's not designed to help and we have seen from the latest figures the more people who are coming out of work as a result of austerity policies, the more people relying on food banks, now going for clothes banks as well and the increased use of community fridges.

"We have now got to the point people are saying to me even going to charity shops is too expensive."

The council has referred more than 2,800 people to Islington Food Bank since June. The food bank only allows people to be referred 12 times a year - and there are at least 14 people known to the council who have already exceeded this.

Cllr Gallagher has urged people to donate what food and clothes they can to distribution points across the borough in the run up to Christmas.

Universal Credit combines six working age benefits, including Housing Benefit and Job Seekers Alliance, into one online-only monthly payment.

As of the end of January, 1,795 council tenants had moved onto Universal Credit and 1,390 of them were in arrears, with an average debt of £1,258.

An additional 1,381 people are now claiming the benefit and the average debt has risen by £37 per household.

Minister for Welfare Delivery Will Quince said: "Universal Credit is a force for good, providing vital support across the length and breadth of London and helping people into work.

"Universal Credit provides a vital safety net to millions, preventing families from falling through the cracks.

"We continue to make improvements - in the last month alone we have increased childcare support, announced new funding to help veterans and their families, and brought in new measures to crack down on fraudsters."

DWP data shows there were 8,901 Universal Credit claimants in Islington as of October 15.

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party this month pledged to scrap the benefit, calling it an "unmitigated disaster". The council passed a motion of no confidence in Universal Credit in December.

Call Samaritans' for confidential emotional support via its free 24 hour phone line on 116 123. You don't have to be feeling suicidal to call this number.

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