A BENEFITS entitlement boss has launched a blistering attack on Universal Credit, describing it as a “ticking timebomb” which has led to a “different level of destitution” for some of its claimants.

Joanne Barker, Lancashire County Council’s welfare rights manager, laid out a litany of complaints about the system when she appeared before the authority’s external scrutiny committee.

Her evidence included claims that errors are commonplace and that some people simply hit a “Universal Credit brick wall” and stop trying to claim.

It prompted the cross-party committee to conclude that the system is “broken” and likely to get worse as the rollout of the benefit continues.

Currently, around one in four benefit claimants across Lancashire is receiving Universal Credit (UC) – but all working-age people with an entitlement will be moved onto it within the next four years. It is also absorbing working tax credits for people who are in employment.

County councillors heard that Lancashire’s welfare rights team is regularly dealing with claims which are closed in error – and faces a struggle to overturn incorrect decisions even though they are experts in the procedures to do so.

“Unlike other benefits where there is quite strong legislation that protects people and there are responsibilities on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) before they close a claim, it’s not the same with UC – they just close it,” explained Ms Barker.

“When claimants challenge decisions they can be ignored – the system just frustrates them.”

The meeting heard that a “real-time” dispute resolution system introduced to try to rectify issues with individual claims was interfering with the process of making more formal challenges, such as the right to demand that an application is reassessed.

But Ms Barker told the committee that in the two decades she had worked in welfare, it was now more difficult than ever to “unpick” incorrect decisions.

That mattered, the committee heard, because the 16-strong welfare rights team at County Hall was having to “constantly correct” errors made in the UC process.

Ms Barker also revealed that the situation was taking its toll on staff, with several having left and some managers at “breaking point”. The team has received suicide training because of the difficult and sensitive cases they encounter.

“It’s very difficult – we’re not trained mental health specialists,” she said, describing the case of one lone parent who she had been dealing with for two years.

“I knew straight away that the decision not to pay UC was wrong. I tried for months to get hold of this young lady and couldn’t – but I didn’t want to give up, because I knew that if we didn’t get involved, it would not be sorted out.

“One day, her mother answered[when I called and she broke down – because the day before, her daughter had tried to commit suicide. It’s hard to think that if we had just spoken to her earlier, could we have stopped that?”

Members heard that the problems with the system did not discriminate between those in work and the unemployed, the healthy or the sick. As one single payment, the implications of UC miscalculation can be massive.

“With the previous system, if they lost one benefit, they were usually getting their rent paid and had…something to tide them over.  When UC stops, everything stops – immediately, they might be getting phone calls from the landlord, facing eviction,” said Ms Barker, who also called for improved safeguarding for claimants.

“It’s upsetting to see people who are not scroungers, but genuine people who tried very hard to get themselves out of their situation…and then end up in a system that just breaks them.”

The committee has requested Lancashire County Council’s chief executive to launch a review of the welfare rights service in light of the evidence it heard and consider whether the department needs “refinancing”.

Responding to the comments made at the committee, a DWP spokesperson said:  “We haven’t been given the opportunity to investigate these cases in detail.

“However, we spend more than £95 billion a year on welfare, and have simplified and improved the benefits system through Universal Credit.

“The benefit supports more than 2.8 million people, providing a vital safety net for those who are out of work or on low wages, and we know the vast majority of claimants are satisfied with their experience on Universal Credit.”