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24 February 2017, 09:20
MSPs have called on the UK Work and Pensions secretary to fix "shocking'' problems with Universal Credit before it is extended in Scotland, claiming it is driving people to "breaking point''.
The single payment replaces six benefits - income support, jobseeker's allowance, employment support allowance, housing benefit, child tax credit and working tax credit - and is paid directly to claimants.
Universal Credit has been introduced in pilot areas in Scotland ahead of a planned roll-out and now Holyrood's Social Security Committee has written to Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green urging him to address "fundamental, systemic issues'' with the payment before it is expanded.
The committee met with administrative staff and claimants in the Musselburgh pilot area and heard about unacceptable delays of eight or nine weeks in being paid benefits, pushing people into rent arrears.
Committee members also heard local jobcentres are ill-equipped to effectively support claimants.
The letter calls for the Universal Credit helpline to be free as currently claimants are charged and can face long call times.
Universal Credit was aimed at simplifying the benefits system and making work pay but the letter states: "Our evidence tells us in practice people find the system far from simplified, eligibility is unclear and it is more difficult than before to even initiate a claim.''
Committee convener Sandra White said: "The whole purpose of Universal Credit was to simplify the process of claiming for social security by rolling six benefits into the one payment.
"We heard some shocking stories of people who are being driven to breaking point because this system simply doesn't work for them.
"We hope that the evidence we heard directly from people using the system will be a wake-up call to the Secretary of State that changes need to be made before Universal Credit is rolled out any further.
"We recognise any new system is always going to have some issues but most of the committee agree that if these fundamental, systemic issues are not addressed then Universal Credit is not a workable system.
"Even more concerning is that some of the problems we encountered are likely to be made worse by the closure of jobcentres across Scotland, with more pressure being put on the third sector to help some of our most vulnerable people in Scotland.''
A spokesman for the Department for Work and Pensions said: "The best way to support people is to help them into work, and under Universal Credit people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
"Our research shows that the majority of UC claimants are comfortable managing their budgets, and we're working with local authorities and landlords to get extra support to those people who may find themselves in arrears.
"We've been rolling Universal Credit out gradually so that we have time to ensure it works in the right way for everyone involved.''