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Sally Sally Young, Chief Executive

Lord Beecham, our Vice President, recently described Universal Credit as “the poll tax of our time”. Sir Jeremy has been a serving Councillor in Newcastle upon Tyne for over fifty years. Benwell and Scotswood, the ward he represents, is among the poorest in the country. Newcastle was one of the first cities to pilot Universal Credit two years ago. Universal Credit is rolled out to Gateshead this week.

Last week the leader of a significant local charity asked me how much time should his organisation’s staff spend in supporting clients around welfare reform and benefit issues? It is not an advice organisation, they are not contracted to provide benefit support, they don’t have external funding to deliver this, yet their service users / beneficiaries are very vulnerable and can’t get this easily from elsewhere. They have built up trust relationships with staff, they don’t want go elsewhere.

Another organisation noted they were now spending three and a half hours with individual carers to support them with form filling, as opposed to the usual ninety minutes. This is clearly having an impact on the number of people they can support

When we think about Benefits advice and support, we naturally think about the incredible work done by Citizens Advice - their staff and volunteers. But Citizens Advice is coming under tremendous pressure - the demands on their services increase, but in a number of instances their funding is reduced. It is getting harder to recruit and retain volunteers as the messages they often have to give to clients aren’t good.

So there are real tensions for many charities especially when so many of us (including ourselves) have the “relief of poverty” in our charitable objects. We are faced with the daily misery of supporting people who have been sanctioned, or who have had their benefits substantially reduced or who are waiting unacceptable amounts of time to get payments. At Newcastle CVS, Advocacy Centre North, set up a welfare advocacy post, initially through crowd-funding and now through charitable trust funding. The post went live in April and already has a substantial waiting list.

When asked earlier this year about the key issues that voluntary and community organisations in Gateshead and Newcastle were concerned about in relation to their clients, Universal Credit emerged as a key issue.

Clearly many local people, community organisations and charities have had to respond creatively to the challenges of poverty caused by Universal Credit. In Newcastle, the West End Food Bank (the largest in the UK) estimates that 60% of their users are there because of benefit problems (waiting and amounts). The Gateshead Food Bank has on some days almost run out of food.

The House Commons Work and Pensions Committee is collecting evidence for its latest inquiry. As Patrick Butler writes in the Guardianthese submissions, from claimants, landlords, local authorities and charities, reveal a remarkable consensus: that for all its theoretical attractions, in practice Universal Credit is a bureaucratic nightmare and financial disaster for too many of those who have to engage with it.

The personal misery, mental health distress, increase in debt, rent arrears and eviction, relationship breakdown and the massive increase of food bank use are being captured by many organisations.

So Universal Credit is over-bureaucratic, punitive, and isn’t working with minimal evidence of behaviour change – surely a case of rhetoric and dogma trumping sense and being humane.