THE Minister for Welfare Reform Lord David Freud has responded to strong criticism from St Helens Council of Government welfare changes as universal credit was introduced into the borough.
The Coalition's flagship welfare reform sees six existing benefits merged into one all-encompassing monthly payment. It replaces income-based jobseeker’s allowance, housing benefit, working tax credit, child tax credit, employment and support allowance and income support.
The Government claims the new benefit will be easier to understand and ensures people are better off in work than on welfare. They also say it helps to make the transition into work smoother with people remaining on the same benefit structure.
However, St Helens Council has described the ongoing reforms as a “fiasco". Thousands of people across St Helens will be affected.
Councillor Marlene Quinn said: “This council believes that the coalition government’s welfare cuts and major aspects of their welfare reform are having, and will continue to have, a significant detrimental impact on the residents of St Helens.”
Other councillors have labelled the new system “shambolic” and “manufactured to hit people already in the poverty trap".
But Lord Freud, the minister overseeing the changes, told the Star the reforms would actually help those out of work and form a “huge attack” on poverty in St Helens.
He said: “The figures show that people are better off on Universal Credit than the current structure. It will make people better off and get families into work.
“This is a huge attack on poverty to make sure people can work. What is really important is having a system that helps people into jobs. We’re not where we need to be but the number of people in Merseyside out of work is going down.”
Universal credit, run on an online system, is being gradually implemented across the country .
Lord Freud added: “We’re replacing six different benefits into one with both out of work and in work benefits into one structure.
“It will ensure when people are out of work and when they are experimenting with jobs that they will always have the same benefit structure and be free of all the bureaucratic hassle.”
St Helens Council has also highlighted residents in the town who have not had a response to benefit claims after nine months and incidents of massive backlogs in the rewarding of the Personal Independence Payment.
However, Lord Freud says he is confident people can expect Universal Credit payments to be dealt with quickly and that there will be adequate support for everyone despite worries that those without access to computers or with little knowledge of the internet will struggle.
“Universal Credit is showing rapid responses and once people are registered they will be paid from the end of the next month.
“We are designing for it to be done on Smartphones and where people are having difficulties we will have online support for people with face to face and telephone options available as well.
“The important thing to remember though is ninety per cent of jobs now require some ability to use I.T.”