Revealed: Almost 1,000 Hampshire families in debt since start of Universal Credit

ALMOST 1,000 families have fallen into debt across Hampshire in the eight months since Universal Credit was rolled out, The News can exclusively reveal.

Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 7:00 am
Updated Wednesday, 29th May 2019, 8:22 am

An investigation by this paper and its parent company, JPIMedia, has revealed the shocking scale of Britain’s benefits crisis, with more than 95,000 people nationally on the new system now in debt – costing councils almost £63m in missed housing payments.

Across Hampshire the number of households falling into arrears on their rent has already hit 928, leaving authorities footing a combined bill of £538,347.59.

Some councils have already taken action by evicting people on Universal Credit for falling behind on their rental payments.

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Picture: Duncan Shepherd

The situation has now prompted fears more families could be kicked out by bailiffs if immediate action isn’t taken to overhaul the system and prevent it from reaching ‘crisis point’.

Councillor Gerald Vernon-Jackson, leader of Portsmouth City Council, said: ‘Universal Credit is a bad system, it’s a system which increases poverty and increases homelessness.

‘However good the idea may have been it doesn’t work in practice. It needs to be abolished.

‘We’re not at crisis point yet but we are at the point where that could become a possibility very soon.’

Portsmouth has taken the brunt of the impact from Universal Credit’s roll-out, with 593 households in arrears since the benefits reform went live in September.

Figures from freedom of information requests show this has left Portsmouth City Council £308,299.34 out of pocket, with the average family debt hitting £520 in affected households.

Housing chiefs at the council have already evicted seven people in receipt of universal credit for falling too far behind with their rent, with figures showing the council is still owed £27,054.73 by people who failed to pay off all their debt.

Meanwhile, there are some 1,379 people on housing benefit in arrears, costing £297,014.03, bringing the total bill for the city to a staggering £632,368.10.

The situation is similar across the region, with all councils who responded to an FoI request by The News reporting they were out of pocket following the introduction of universal credit.

In Gosport, 98 households on Universal Credit were in arrears at a cost of £64,170.46 to the town’s borough council, with 275 people on housing benefit also behind on payments, at a total £60,552.34.

In Fareham, the toll is slightly less, with 61 universal credit claimants in arrears, at a cost of £60,420.24 to Fareham Borough Council. While there are 342 people on housing benefits in arrears, leaving the authority facing a £125,243.25 deficit in its housing bills.

Cllr Sean Woodward, leader of Fareham Borough Council, admitted he had always been worried by Universal Credit and feared families were falling into difficulty by failing to budget properly.

The veteran Tory said: ‘The rationale behind Universal Credit is a sensible one – teaching people to budget.

‘The problem is that people are getting a month’s worth of benefits in one go, which aren’t paid directly to landlords, and fall to other temptations.’

Other figures show that Winchester City Council had 176 households on universal credit in arrears at a cost of £105,457.55, while 613 receiving housing benefit were in arrears, costing £61,635.56. There were only three evictions since 2013 for housing benefit with one eviction for Universal Credit in 2018/19.

Havant Borough Council did not respond to The News’s freedom of information request. Nor did Southampton City Council.

Cllr Woodward said the Fareham had since created its own debt advice service to support those struggling to cope with their budgets.

He urged other councils to follow suit.