A single council has set aside £5m to support struggling Universal Credit claimants over three years.
Confirmation of the sum comes in figures released over the Christmas period outlining the extent of set aside support for vulnerable households.
A second set of figures exposed a doubling of attempted suicides among disability benefit claimants since the introduction of fit-to-work assessments in 2008.
Responding, the DWP stands by advances available to cover UC waiting times – while stressing these “must” be repaid – and says the suicide attempt figures refer to a “complex issue” that can’t be linked solely to someone’s benefit claim.
The UC figures – made public by Labour and sourced through FoI – show many councils allocating significant funds to support tenants with rent arrears and provide advice to help them navigate the new system.
Margaret Greenwood, the shadow minister for employment, said the figures showed councils having to soak up the “misery and hardship” caused by UC and provided more evidence of the need for a pause to the roll-out.
In total, 26 councils said they had to factor for extra resources or anticipated increased demand for welfare support as the UC rollout reaches their area.
In London, Tower Hamlets council said it had set aside £5m over three years to help those affected.
Newcastle City Council was spending £390,000 supporting UC claimants – almost a quarter of which was for additional rent arrears support.
Liverpool City Council said it had spent £175,000 from its local welfare provision scheme on UC claimants, while Shropshire Council said it had set aside put £20,000 towards food banks to diversify the type of help they are able to give specifically to suit Universal Credit.
MPs and charities have raised serious concerns about the social impact of UC and related hardship.
Government dismisses such concerns are ‘scaremongering’ though the autumn budget acknowledge issues by announced changes in the upfront waiting time from six weeks to five.
The DWP said councils had been providing welfare advice and housing payment top-ups as standard, since long before the introduction of UC, referencing advances available for anyone who needs extra help and the potential for direct payments to landlords.
Almost half (49%) of claimants are now receiving an advance when they apply for UC, but the DWP stressed this “must” be re-paid.
Further figures exposed attempted suicides among out-of-work disability benefit claimants as more than doubled since the introduction of fit-to-work assessments in 2008.
Analysis of NHS data from surveys taken in 2007 and 2014 is said to show nearly half of people surveyed on out-of-work disability benefits said they had attempted to take their own lives in 2014.
Results from the 2007 survey – taken a year before the controversial work capability assessment (WCA) test began – show 21% of incapacity benefit claimants had attempted suicide – meaning the proportion more than doubled in seven years.
Politicians and clinicians say the statistics are a damning indictment of the controversial testing process.
One leading psychologist calls the stats the “greatest jump in suicide rates in any population”.
Dr Jay Watts, a consultant clinical psychologist and member of the campaigning Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said: “If the Government has any real interest in suicide prevention, benefits reform must be the immediate priority.
“The UN has condoned the government’s treatment of disabled people as contrary to their human rights.
“The shame, guilt, anxiety and paranoia the current system provokes is a national scandal, that should be headline news – making the workless feel worthless, and under-serving of support, has provoked a mental health emergency.”
Disability groups and charities told The Independent many disabled people are made “incredibly stressed and anxious” – often driven to suicidal thoughts – by the capability tests, adding that poor-quality assessments often lead to incorrect decisions.
The statistical surge in suicide attempts supports an academic study earlier this year that warned the fit-to-work tests were causing permanent damage to some claimants’ mental health, which “in the worst cases, led to thoughts of suicide”.
Marsha de Cordova MP, shadow minister for disabled people, said the figures were a “truly damning indictment of the government’s social security policies, and show they are unfit for purpose”.
Labour has said it would scrap the current test regime.
Many found fit for work have the decision turned over on appeal, but disabled groups have cited the mental distress caused by continuous reassessment and lengthy waits for often wrong results – with many fit for work findings over-turned on appeal.
Labour’s Jack Dromey told the Commons of a constituent’s experience of ‘welfare reform’ as: I’m going to die – for God’s sake why do you keep re-assessing me”.
Linda Burnip, co-founder Disabled People Against Cuts campaign group, said the assessments were “nothing short of harassment and hounding people into further and deeper despair and depression.”
The DWP said suicide was a “very complex issue” that could not be linked solely to someone’s benefit claim.
Fit for work decisions, it said, were taken following “thorough independent assessment” and consideration of all information provided – including supporting evidence from a GP or medical specialist.
But the system, it said, was subject to continual review that ahead already led to “a number of changes”.