I congratulate my hon. Friend Ruth George on opening the debate and setting the scene for us. I want to talk briefly about the position in Gateshead. My constituency is wholly contained within the local authority area of Gateshead and I want to touch on various points. We are seeing many of the worst problems occurring in my constituency. We had the full roll-out of universal credit in October and November 2017, so many of my constituents did not benefit from the tweaks that we had later. That clearly does not apply now, but there were some problems earlier on. Yes, people who have applied since the changes have seen the benefit of the roll-over of two weeks’ housing benefit, but many have been left in a difficult situation.
The housing company that manages the housing stock across the Gateshead Council area is the Gateshead Housing Company. According to up-to-date information, there are currently 3,087 tenants on universal credit who even now, collectively, have arrears of £1.8 million. That is an average of £583 each, up from an average of £283 before universal credit. I am told that this is caused by the delays in receiving payments. I am also told that 41% of the tenants of the Gateshead Housing Company have been put on alternative payment arrangements, which is a much higher proportion than either the Government or the company expected. This is not a case of the authority or the housing company leaving people to the worst of the system; this is happening after people have had help.
This builds on existing issues resulting from the bedroom tax, or the under occupancy tax—whichever you want to call it, the problem is the same. It involves those who do not have a chance, whatever they might want to do, to move to a smaller property. There were 1,579 people affected by that, and we can see a cumulative effect building up. The roll-out figure for people going on to universal credit has been much greater than expected. As I say, this is not an area in which people have been left to struggle, but there is still a problem with the housing revenue account.
I want to speak briefly, and quickly, about a report commissioned by Gateshead Council into the impact of universal credit. These are the headlines. First, those claiming universal credit found the experience complicated, difficult and demeaning. Secondly, the consequences of waiting five weeks for their money—and in many cases up to 12 weeks, with an average wait of 7.5 weeks—pushed many people into debt, rent arrears and hardship. For many of them, this included going without food. Thirdly, the staff supporting claimants found the system to be inconsistent, with inaccurate advice being given and difficulty in correcting what were clearly mistakes. Fourthly, universal credit is not working for vulnerable claimants, and it significantly adds to the workload of the staff supporting those claimants. I could go on, but I do not have time to do so.
We have also heard about the difficulty for people moving from the disability living allowance to the personal independence payment, with many people having their benefits reinstated on appeal. It cannot be right that the system allows people to go through all that agony, only to then reinstate their benefits. We have to get that right. Finally, I want to mention one of my constituents, Rev. Tracey Hume, who has said:
“I volunteer with a food bank. I am also a Methodist minister who has had to find benevolent funds to pay for gas and electricity while people wait five weeks for their first payment. We cannot expect people to live like that.”