The crippling effects of the Universal Credit welfare scheme on Amber Rudd’s constituency were laid bare in a searing independent report.
The National Audit Office reported in June how the beleaguered benefits system had led to soaring demand at the new Work and Pensions Secretary’s local foodbank in Hastings, East Sussex.
Universal Credit, which has been beset by claims it has led to an increase in poverty, will be the former home secretary’s top priority as she returns to cabinet following Esther McVey’s resignation this week.
The National Audit Office (NAO) found that Hastings’ Trussell Trust foodbank saw an 80% rise in those requiring food parcels after Universal Credit’s full-service scheme was rolled out in the seaside town.
Demand was so high, the NAO said, that foodbank bosses considered a vast expansion – at a cost of £200,000 in order to increase the space available to store supplies.
Hastings Foodbank manager Natalie Williams wrote on HuffPost UK last month that staff at the centre “had just stopped reeling” from a 87% rise in demand, driven by Universal Credit’s roll out.
The roll out impacted the town in other ways too. The NAO’s report, published in June, said: “In the Hastings area, a property agent told us that only one in 10 private landlords using their agency in the town will rent to benefit claimants.”
It follows concerns from private landlords that switching to Universal Credit, which replaces six separate benefits into one single monthly payment made directly to claimants, led tenants to rack up rent arrears.
Previous benefits schemes have paid rent directly to landlords.
And there were other signs of Universal Credit’s chaotic impact on claimants in Hastings.
The NAO reported that Hastings Council estimated that it receives almost five times as many change of circumstance requests for Universal Credit compared to the older Housing Benefit scheme it replaced.
Change in circumstance requests update a claimant’s eligibility for council tax reduction schemes, for example, when a claimant stops or starts receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance.
Meanwhile, the NAO found that Hastings’ Citizens Advice bureau was considering cutting services so it could keep up with a huge increase in the numbers of Universal Credit claimants seeking support.
Rudd said on Friday night that she had seen Universal Credit “do some fantastic things”.
“In my constituency in Hastings and Rye it really has transformed lives,” she said.
“But I also recognise there have been some issues with it and I very much see it as my job, my role to try and iron out those issues and make sure [Universal Credit] is a force wholly for good.”
Responding to the NAO’s report in June, a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said the system was “good value for money” and would realise a return investment of £34bn over 10 years.
“As the NAO acknowledges, we have made significant improvements to Universal Credit as part of our ‘listen and learn’ approach to its rollout, and it’s on track to be in all jobcentres nationally by the end of 2018,” the spokesperson said.
But the rollout has since been delayed once more as ministers bowed to pressure.
CORRECTION: This article was updated on 16 November to correct a mention to Hastings, West Sussex. The town is in East Sussex.