FEARS have been raised over the future of thousands of Portsmouth’s poorest children after a controversial new benefits system was rolled out in the city.
After months of planning, universal credit finally went live for the first time in Portsmouth yesterday.
The system, touted by the government as a positive step forward in its welfare reform, has replaced six benefits with one monthly payment.
Advocates of the new set up say it helps to simplify the old system and claim it gives people more control over their finances.
However, critics in Portsmouth fear it could spell disaster for thousands of families already battling to make ends meet.
Councillor Judith Smyth, who is Labour’s spokeswoman for children and families in Portsmouth, fears families could face an uphill struggle trying to adjust to the new system.
She said: ‘There are over 14,000 families in Portsmouth that include 25,000 children who will be affected by the changes in universal credit.
‘It’s estimated 13,000 children – or 31 per cent of children in Portsmouth – are living in poverty. They already have difficult enough lives.
‘I do have fears for these 13,000 children.’
Universal Credit is now in operation at Portsmouth and Cosham Jobcentres. It will roll out to Havant, Gosport and Fareham on November 28.
The system is different from the former benefits scheme because most people will now receive one monthly payment, including money to help with rent costs.
Critics worry that people who might be struggling for cash may spend too much from their benefits and no longer have enough money to pay for rent, which could spark a rise in eviction rates in the city.
Cllr Smyth said: ‘All the decent landlords, the city council and the housing associations, will be keen to avoid a rise in evictions.
‘But it’s more difficult to see with the number of private landlords, that could happen.’
Portsmouth South MP Stephen Morgan added: ‘Universal credit should be supporting the poorest in our society, making work pay. I’m really concerned that, in its current form, universal credit is failing the exact families it should be helping.
‘I’ve visited the job centre to learn more about the rollout in our city, they’re doing the best they can, but I remain incredibly worried.’
The six benefits being replaced with universal credit are jobseeker’s allowance, employment and support allowance, income support, working and child tax credit and housing benefit.
Initially it is only for people making new claims, so for those already receiving all the benefits they need and their situation hasn’t changed, they won’t need to do anything.
But from now most people won’t be able to make a new claim for any of the benefits that universal credit replaces.
There are some exceptions – families with three or more children won’t be able to claim universal credit yet, and some people in specialist housing will still be able to claim housing benefit.
The rollout of the system has taken place in stages across the UK, with reports of delays in payments being widely reported.
Councillor Donna Jones, Portsmouth’s Tory boss, said she would be keeping a ‘close eye’ on the situation in the city.
‘The concept of a universal credit had been designed to help people who are reliant on regular financial support from the government, by simplifying the process and making it less bureaucratic,’ she said.
‘Like everything, the devil is often in the detail, and delays to the processing of new claims isn’t acceptable.
Councillor Rob Wood, cabinet member for children and families, hoped the new system would make things better for poorer families – eventually.
But he had his reservations about the immediate, short-term impact universal credit could have on those trying to adjust.
He said: ‘The rollout of universal credit is obviously a stressful time for families.
‘The council is working hard to try and bridge the gap for families changing over. With the change over of methodology it’s understandable there will be a lot of trepidation.
‘But ultimately universal credit is meant to improve the situation across the board to make it a level playing field. We will have to wait and see.
‘But I do have my concerns with how people will get used to the system.
‘I’m worried that families already trying to manage very tight finances might struggle to adjust to universal credit.’
Cllr Wood promised the council would do what it can to support those in need or to sign post them to appropriate help.
He urged those facing any issues to contact their ward councillor immediately.
Universal credit: how to cope with changes
PORTSMOUTH City Council has issued a statement advising people of how to deal with universal credit’s arrival – to avoid being caught out by it.
If you’re not confident using the internet, either on a smartphone, tablet, laptop or computer, the first thing you need to do is sign up for a beginner’s computer skills course.
If you don’t have access to the internet, there are lots of places where you can use a computer, or free WiFi for your smartphone or tablet.
It’s even possible to claim universal credit without a mobile phone number, but you must have your own email address.
Universal credit will be paid direct to your bank, building society, credit union or post office card account. If you don’t have an account, open one now.
If your account is overdrawn and you’re worried about your universal credit payment being swallowed up, find out about opening a fee-free basic bank account that won’t charge you for missed payments and won’t let you go overdrawn.
If you’re used to planning your budget over one or two weeks, think about how you’ll manage with monthly payments.
If your wages aren’t paid monthly, or your pay varies, the amount of universal credit you get each month will change too.
Think about setting up your important bills to be paid by direct debit just after you receive your universal credit payment.
When you claim you’ll need to provide things like your tenancy agreement, proof of any savings, your National Insurance number and proof of your identity.
Where to get help for your universal credit
WHEN it comes to getting advice on universal credit, there are a number of places people in Portsmouth can go for help if they are stuck, or just need a helping hand.
City council tenants and tenants of Radian, Southern and VIVID housing associations can get lots of help on universal credit from their housing office, where the teams are trained up to help tenants manage the change to universal credit.
Advice Portsmouth is a free, confidential and impartial advice service provided by the You Trust and funded by Portsmouth City Council.
Anyone living or working in Portsmouth can drop in at 116 Kingston Crescent and get help to solve problems with benefits, debt, employment, housing, family issues and consumer law.
Citizens Advice Portsmouth provide an Info Point every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday at Ark Royal House on Winston Churchill Avenue, which people are welcome to attend.