By Grainne Cuffe
The number of Southwark residents on Universal Credit has doubled since the first national lockdown.
Citizens Advice Bureau Southwark staff told the council assembly on Wednesday that rent arrears for council tenants in the borough have increased by £1 million over the past few months.
But they warned people have not yet felt the full impact because most creditors have suspended their services, along with landlords and evictions.
Strategic Support Coordinator, Tim Clark, said CAB Southwark has been on the “frontline of efforts to mitigate the negative economic consequences of Covid”.
“And these consequences have been severe. The number of Southwark residents on Universal Credit has doubled to 41,000 since the first national lockdown began.
“Rent arrears for council tenants on Universal Credit have increased by £1 million over the past few months and by over £3 million over the past couple of years.
“Local foodbanks have seen huge increases in numbers of people fed.”
Just under half of people surveyed in social life research commissioned by the council said that Covid was affecting their life because their household finances were suffering.
“Our own statistics show much higher than usual levels of benefits and employment related enquiries and growing numbers of enquiries about debt and housing,” Mr Clark said.
Chief executive officer Christopher Green spoke about the service’s journey since March, when all face-to-face services were suspended.
“We were able to help over 5,000 people remotely in those first lockdown months, mainly with problems relating to Universal Credit, the furlough scheme, redundancy, and unfair dismissal.
“However, as we looked at out stats, we noticed a problem. Younger people were using our services in greater numbers than before,” he said.
Mr Green said that as a result of services moving online, fewer elderly people, disabled people, people with long term health issues, and people from diverse ethnic communities were accessing their services, which include advice on debt, housing, immigration, and Universal Credit.
He said CAB Southwark decided they should resume to face-to-face services to mitigate these issues.
They opened their offices in Peckham, Bermondsey, and Walworth five days a week, and used video technology to allow clients to sit in one room and advisors in another, working remotely, to adhere to social distancing.
“Looking to the future we foresee a huge demand for debt advice – levels of indebtedness have increases significantly during lockdown.
“However, people have not yet fully felt the impact of this as most creditors have temporarily suspend their recovery processes.
“Similarly, as current protections from evictions are lifted we expect many people finding themselves needing advice on housing and homelessness,” he said.
Keri Cooper explained that the team helped a vulnerable mum during the pandemic.
Nina, a single mum and EU national with pre-settled status, was living with no income after losing her job because of lockdown.
“She was struggling to afford her rent, bills, and daily essentials.
“Nina approached us as she had applied for Universal Credit but the claim had failed because the DWP had decided she had failed the habitual residence test.
“When Nina made contact with our help to claim team for advice we helped her to challenge this decision. The challenge was successful and Nina’s claim for Universal Credit was backdated to the date of the original claim.
“Nina now receives Universal Credit of £1,545 per month, which has stabilised her and her children’s finances.”
CAB Southwark’s presentation was made in the context of the theme for the meeting, ‘resilient Southwark: responding to the ongoing pandemic’.
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