If the Conservative-led UK government are looking for a ringing endorsement for Universal Credit then they should avoid Falkirk Council at all costs.
It’s safe to say the new form of benefit’s name was mud in the council chambers and was referred to as “repulsive”, a “universal disgrace” and “immoral”.
It was said to take away pride, people’s ability to feed their families and would create a famine in this country turning it into a third world country.
The strong words came up at a meeting of the full council on Monday, as members discussed a report on the next stage of the roll out of the Department of Work and Pensions’ Universal Credit, which is expected to come into full force in the Falkirk area in the middle of March.
Council leader Cecil Meiklejohn said Universal Credit was “pushing people further into poverty”.
Opposition leader Dennis Goldie said: “Our position is we will support any party any time that wants to go and campaign against Universal Credit or campaign to get a change to Universal Credit.
“This form of Universal Credit is reprehensible, it’s repulsive. It’s going to break up families, it’s going to break up marriages and it will cost people’s lives. It takes away pride from human beings and the ability to feed their families.
“We should be united and fight every step of the way against it. It will be like a famine in the country because of the amount of people who will not be able to feed their families.”
The report gave councillors some idea of the impact the introduction of Universal Credit would have on people and resources.
Universal Credit helps with living costs and replaces existing benefits like child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, working tax credit, income-related employment and support allowance and income-based jobseeker’s allowance.
Councillor Pat Reid referred to Iain Duncan Smith, who introduced Universal Credit when he was secretary of state for work and pensions, as the “smiling assassin”.
He added: “In 2018 there are people out there having to choose whether to pay their rent or eat or get their children clothes for school. Is this the type of society in which we want to live in?”
It was stated it was clear people already on Universal Credit were falling into more arrears than people on other forms of benefits, despite a change in the Universal Credit waiting period from seven weeks to six weeks.
Councillor Alan Nimmo said: “This is a disgraceful policy which has been imposed by the Tory government. It’s something we expect to see from a right wing party who are targeting the vulnerable.
“We have an increase in food banks and an increase in homelessness. We could end up as a third world country unless something serious is done about this policy. I would have liked to see the Conservatives in the chamber stand up and say we are not going to support this policy.”
Councillor Malcolm Nicol, leader of the Falkirk Conservative group, said: “We recognise the introduction of Universal Credit is part of a larger picture. We now have the largest number of people in work in the history of our country.
“There is a downside and we see that in our local communities.”
Council officers are bracing themselves for the full roll out and, based on the experiences other local authorities have had with Universal Credit, will be expecting a large increase in rent arrears, crisis grant applications and people looking for assistance to manage their claims online.
Councillor David Alexander praised the work of the council’s welfare rights section who went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure a resident had enough money to survive over the festive period.
He added: “This is an absolute disgrace of a benefits change done through targets of savings. If an international human rights organisation criticises the policies of Westminster we need to take note of what they say.”
There was also praise for Falkirk Community Trust library staff from Councillor Joan Coombes, for the help and support they had been providing to people when it came to using computers to access benefits and other online services.
Councillor Coombes added: “Universal Credit – it’s a universal disgrace. It’s immoral what we are doing to our citizens at the moment.”
It was unanimously agreed to commit to giving members a briefing and regular updates on the issues surrounding the new benefit.
Councillor Fiona Collie said: “We should receive regular reports on Universal Credit and on other issues around the benefits system. This will ensure we, as councillors, are best placed to advise our constituents and to make decisions about what is needed to support our most vulnerable citizens.”
The council is now training up its frontline staff and partner organisations on every facet of Universal Credit to make sure they know how people can access advice and support.
Councillor John McCluckie said: “We need to man up and admit poverty is happening out there. For the first time police are telling us there is a big rise in crime and shoplifting and it’s not people doing it for drugs, it’s people stealing food.
“That’s happening in Falkirk. We need to address poverty and admit poverty exists in this country. There are people out there who are in poverty and our officers are snowed under by this.”