A FORTY-NINE per cent rise in council tenants’ rent arrears in just 16 months represents a stark indicator of the “absolutely appalling” situation facing many vulnerable people following the introduction of Universal Credit in one North-East borough, it has been claimed.

Darlington Borough Council’s deputy opposition leader has called for government action after latest figures by the authority revealed that since April the overall amount of rent arrears for council tenants in Darlington had increased from £822,286 to £888,386.

Labour councillor Chris McEwan made the comments as a report to the council’s adults and housing scrutiny committee also revealed the average level of rent arrears for council tenants receiving the new benefit stands at £497 compared to £200 for all other council tenants.

At the beginning of last month, 945 Darlington borough council tenants had applied for, or were in receipt of Universal Credit. Only 178 of those were either in credit or are up to date with their rent. It is estimated a further 1,500 working aged council tenants getting Housing Benefit are due to convert to Universal Credit. The report stated the rent arrears had soared despite the council having a number of measures and sources of advice in place to help residents to claim Universal Credit successfully.These include a two-week transitional payment of Housing Benefit to people who changing to Universal Credit and support available at the council to help residents make a claim.

The report concluded extra staff will be needed to work on Universal Credit issues for the foreseeable future to ensure rent arrears are kept to a minimum, where possible.

It added: “Council staff have proved typically resilient in dealing with these issues, but the expected efficiencies Universal Credit will deliver are unlikely to be realised for a number of years.”

The Conservative-run authority’s leader Councillor Heather Scott said much of the rise in rent arrears had come about because Housing Benefits recipients had been paid weekly in advance and Universal Credit was paid a month in arrears.

She said: “Most of them are only technically in arrears. Once people get used to the Universal Credit system it will sort itself out.”

Cllr Scott also sought to reassure council tenants changing to Universal Credit, saying the authority would be flexible over payments. She said: “There are always difficulties introducing a different system. The Labour Party want to do away with Universal Credit, but what would they replace it with and would that system create more upheaval?”

Cllr McEwan called on the authority’s Conservative administration to join the council’s Labour group and other councils from across the North-East in making representations to government over Universal Credit, adding: “An increase of 49 per cent in rent arrears is terrible. Clearly there is something wrong with the system.”

The Haughton and Springfield ward member said while volunteering as a community peer mentor he had seen people through no fault of their own being plunged into a very vulnerable position due to the Universal Credit system.

He said: “It’s absolutely outrageous in 2019 to have a situation where vulnerable people are suffering because the government has implemented a system that’s not fit for purpose. It is putting vulnerable people in an even worse position and putting society at even more risk.”