Alison Butler, the council deputy leader who failed to declare that her son worked for an agency that was hired by the borough, has today entered the row over the chaos that is Universal Credit, calling on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to provide millions more in hard cash to fix the mess of the DWP’s creating.
“Universal Credit is a mess,” says Butler.
Butler, who is also the Labour council’s cabinet member for housing, has written a column for the Inside Housing website, a week ahead of Philip Hammond, the Tory Government’s Chancellor, making his annual Budget speech.
The DWP – Department for Work and Pensions – has come in for withering criticism over its roll-out of Universal Credit, a Tory benefits reform policy which has been described as “friendless and forlorn”.
Former Prime Ministers John Major and Gordon Brown have both likened UC to the hated Poll Tax, and even the Tory politician responsible for dreaming up the new system, Iain Duncan-Smith, has said Universal Credit urgently needs as much as £3billion extra to avoid families sliding into penury.
The reality, though, is that thousands of families are already forced to endure unnecessary hardships created by the botched Universal Credit system.
Croydon was one of the first local authorities to trial Universal Credit, from 2015, and the council has been picking up the pieces – and the costs – ever since.
“Pumping money into Universal Credit might not be the most eye-catching announcement the Chancellor could make, but it would probably be the most important,” Croydon’s deputy leader writes in her web column.
“The national media is now fully focused on a fact we’ve known here in Croydon for years – Universal Credit is a mess,” Butler says.
“Croydon was one of the first councils unlucky enough to be chosen by the government as a Universal Credit full roll-out area in 2015.
“This led to struggling families getting into more housing debt, facing eviction by their private landlords and not having enough money to get by.”
In her article, Butler claims that through the council’s Gateway service, 2,400 of the borough’s poorest families have avoided being made homeless, a risk created because of the short-comings of Universal Credit and the manner it is administered by the DWP. On some occasions, Croydon has intervened with private landlords by paying a family’s rent to avoid their eviction, rather than the council having to take on the added costs of providing emergency accommodation.
“Just as councils new to Universal Credit will have to adapt, so we are making a good fist of this bad policy in Croydon,” Butler writes.
“But the bottom line is there is not enough money or support from the government. For example, we had to again write to the Department for Work and Pensions this month because it still owes us more than £1million in unpaid housing benefit subsidy from when Universal Credit was launched here. That does not bode well for other councils about to take the plunge.
“We are having to dip into our own stretched resources because the DWP has woefully underfunded Universal Credit in Croydon.
“Last year, Croydon had to spend almost £1million of council money to top up the inadequate funding we received in discretionary housing payments from the DWP. This year, we will have to add another £700,000.
“This money goes to help some of Croydon’s most vulnerable people, but it would not be necessary if the government funded us properly in the first place. It is not right that Croydon’s taxpayers are having to foot the bill for failed government policies.
“Recently the DWP stopped giving councils like Croydon a share of its universal support funding that previously went to both local authorities and Citizens Advice working together to help benefit claimants.
“This unilateral decision shows the DWP does not grasp the complex partnerships that work at a local level to limit the damage caused by Universal Credit.”
Butler is clearly no fan of Universal Credit, or the misfiring DWP. “The fact remains that Universal Credit needs rethinking or scrapping entirely,” she says.
“As the latter is unlikely, the Chancellor must properly fund this badly planned policy or risk sending not just struggling families into deeper debt but councils, too.”
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