Councillors have been warned of the risks of Universal Credit in South Tyneside as housing debts continue to rise.
The new benefit system was introduced in the borough in May last year, with South Tyneside Homes (STH) dealing with 250 new claimants every month.
Councillors from the West Shields, Cleadon and East Boldon Community Area Forum heard that, in December, there were 378 Universal Credit cases in the area with a total of £222,000 owed – including arrears carried over before tenants signed up for UC.
The number of tenants owing more than £1,000 has also jumped from 127 to 159 compared to the same period last year.
South Tyneside Homes area manager, Esther Windass, told councillors pressures would continue as more people make the move to the new benefit.
She said: “This leaves STH with the problem of rent arrears and delays in people actually getting their payment and understanding they need to be responsible for all of that money and pace their rent.
“We currently have 378 cases in the CAF area and this will increase every single week until a period next year when there will be a full roll-out.
“It’s a risk for us and we have many vulnerable people out there who need our support.”
Universal Credit was introduced in 2013 and intended to replace six ‘legacy benefits’ – including unemployment benefit, tax credits and housing benefit - under one system.
It has been criticised for putting poorer claimants at risk of hunger, debt, rent arrears and homelessness.
In the West Shields, Cleadon and East Boldon area, all arrears stand at £493,000 – an increase of £60,000 compared to the same period last year.
Ms Windass said South Tyneside Homes was working with tenants to help them avoid falling into debt in future.
Se said: “There are several weeks while they wait for Universal Credit to be processed and it might be a very hard time for families.
“When they get the money, they have to make decisions that they have often never had to make.
“It’s trying to help people understand what their priorities should be in terms of paying their rent.”
There have been reports of people waiting up to five weeks for their first payment when making the switch.
Coun Bill Brady said he had spoken to a UC claimant who only had £15 to live on in a week.
He said: “She had just come out of hospital after a major operation but nobody would help her.
“That’s changed since the people from the council came and helped but she was saying her life wasn’t worth living and it really frightened me.
“That’s the situation of one young woman but what about the others, There must be hundreds of thousands of people like that.”
Ms Windass said that people can contact the council’s welfare support team for help to prepare for UC and budgeting advice.
Coun Ernest Gibson called for more publicity for the service and suggested plans for a roadshow in future to boost its profile.
For more information visit www.southtyneside.gov.uk/article/34995/Welfare-Support-Service or call: 0191 4246049
Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service