NO ONE needs to navigate Universal Credit alone, support groups have said.
The new benefits system, which was first rolled out in Portsmouth last week, had raised fears for the poorest families in the city, surrounding both the uncertainty of how the system will work and the six-week lag that claimants will initially experience.
It will essentially replace six means-tested benefits including Employment and Support Allowance, Jobseeker's Allowance and Income Support, and will initially only apply to new claimants or claimants with a change in circumstance. It will eventually replace these benefits entirely.
This means that to begin with, unless making a new claim or submitting a change in circumstance, claimants will not be required to do anything.
But across Portsmouth is a network of organisations that have been working towards the introduction of Universal Credit in partnership with both the council and the Jobcentre.
Some believe it is worth seeking advice sooner rather than later. Annette Grove, a front line advisor for free service Advice Portsmouth, said: 'I would say everyone should get advice from us as soon as possible because we can work out what is the best option for them.
'Using the Universal Credit website we can do a quick benefit calculation to see how people can be better off. We can also challenge a decision, help with applications and if someone is struggling with budgeting or buying food we can give advice on that.'
Claimants who are concerned with how their finances will be affected have also been encouraged to seek help from Home-Start.
Samantha Tomlinson, from the Portsmouth branch of the charity, said: 'I know that it is something people are worried about, specifically that their old benefits will stop and there will be that amount of time when there is no money.
'We are running a Budget Buddies programme to see if people can make a small amount of savings in the mean time to plan for that potential gap in income and to reduce their anxieties.
'Budget Buddies is a volunteer-led programme for families with children aged from nought to 19. It covers a lot of different elements such as making a budget, meal planning and other ways to save. But there will also be specific workshops about Universal Credit.
'People can come into one of our family hubs and make a self-referral. Then we would contact them to arrange a one to one chat.'
Claiming Universal Credit will become a more digitally-led process than applying for any other type of benefit. People will need to have an email address and access to a computer to get started.
Community education co-ordinator at the WEA Omega Centre in Southsea, Karen Barrett, explained how her team could help. 'We are running workshops on a Monday afternoon from 1pm-3pm. Within that time we have a development worker in the room who will help the students.
'Setting up an email address is the first step because you need to use email to sign into your Universal Credit account and to receive updates.
'Then students are shown how to use Learn My Way which is a really user friendly system with different modules. Some of them teach basic IT skills and there's one that explains Universal Credit as well.
'We're running workshops for ten weeks and already they've proved quite popular.'
Further advice can be found on the Portsmouth City Council website, via the Roberts Centre and from housing associations such as Radian, Southern and Vivid.
Universal Credit will be introduced to Havant, Gosport and Fareham from November 28.
Benefits Universal Credit will replace:
• Employment and Support Allowance
• Jobseeker's Allowance
• Income Support
• Child Tax Credit
• Working Tax Credit
• Housing Benefit