Citizen's Advice 'coping well' with volumes of Universal Credit claimants needing help in Wakefield
The chief of Citizen's Advice in Wakefield has said the organisation is coping "pretty well" with the numbers of Universal Credit claimants seeking help.
Simon Topham said that 1,500 local people had been given support with filling out application forms for the benefit, widely perceived to be an extremely complex process, since last April.
Citizen's Advice was given a contract to help Universal Credit claimants last year, after the charity drew attention to huge delays some were facing in getting their money.
The deal was greeted with scepticism from some quarters of the Labour-run council in Wakefield, with some believing Citizen's Advice might not have enough capacity to offer support to everyone in need.
But asked if the organisation was coping with the volumes of those seeking help, nine months on, CEO Mr Topham responded: "Yes, we are.
"I think that scepticism was probably wise, because it focuses everyone's minds on getting that service in place. But it's working pretty well at the moment.
"It helps that there's other services as well - Wakefield District Housing (WDH) still offer support as well as the council and local charities. There's a lot of people involved.
"National Citizen's Advice made an assessment of what demand was likely to be and tailored the funding package accordingly. Here in Wakefield we’ve got good money to help deliver and a good team of people."
That team comprises 27 full-time workers in the district, seven of which assist with UC claims. An additional 40 volunteers are also employed locally.
In a wide-ranging interview, Mr Topham said that other issues faced by Universal Credit claimants are "unlikely to go away" and that he wanted to make Citizen's Advice more accessible in places like the Five Towns and the south-east of the district.
While help-to-claim can be found in local job centres, many of the charity's other services are restricted to its base on King Street in Wakefield and pop-up centres which are time limited.
"If you’re in Castleford or in Hemsworth or in further-flung places in the district you need to make the journey to have appointment here," Mr Topham, a former magazine publisher before his move into the voluntary sector, said.
"In Pontefract, we’re there from 10am to 2pm. Over four hours we have eight half hour slots. Often half an hour isn't long enough to get into helping a client, and Pontefract’s a big town.
"So even where we’ve got outreach, we’re conscious that in many cases it’s not enough.
"Debts are our number one issue, welfare benefits in general is number two.
"People are experiencing all kinds of problems with payday lenders, loan sharks and being drawn into agreements which are much more expensive than they first imagined."
Much of that proposed expansion is subject to extra cash from grants and government pots, but it would be certainly welcome in places like the Five Towns, where public transport, or lack thereof, is a common gripe.
Evidence suggests places like the Wakefield district have suffered more than most when it comes to the rollout of Universal Credit, which saw six benefits combined into one but was beset with administrative problems from the start.
Senior councillors branded it a "catastrophe" in October after it emerged thousands of claimants in the district were waiting more than five weeks for their first payments.
The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) has been bullish about the benefits of the benefit, insisting that it supports "strivers", makes work pay and is more efficient than the system it replaced.
But Mr Topham said he was aware of many cases where people were still facing serious delays, with EU citizens from other countries affected particularly badly.
While Citizen's Advice can help claimants struggling to fill out forms - a lack of internet and computer access is a common problem - there are many other elements of Universal Credit the charity can't help with.
Asked if he thinks the problems and controversies may iron themselves out over the years to come, Mr Topham said: "I don’t think the issues will ever go away.
"Since 2010 we’ve had a different approach in government which is that beenfits are a last resort - people are encouraged not to be on them for too long.
"It’s been used as an instrument to get people back into the world of work, that’s one approach.
"Another is to say everyone in society is entitled to basic standard of living whether they’re working or not.
"Here in Britain I think we’re more at the other end of the spectrum where it’s used as a plaster, and to encourage people to go back to work.
"It’s applicable to some people who are in between jobs and the DWP are actually pretty helpful and supportive at giving people tools to get back into work.
"But there’s a group of people who perhaps have bigger issues. The philosophy is not going to change quickly."
Local Democracy Reporting Service