Keir Starmer says DWP is operating with a ‘hostile environment’ over universal credit as Camden prepares for full roll-out

Holborn and St Pancras MP and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: PA Wire/Stefan Rous

Holborn and St Pancras MP and shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer. Picture: PA Wire/Stefan Rousseau - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Keir Starmer has said the government’s approach to Universal Credit is similar to the “hostile environment” policy that led to the Windrush scandal.

The Holborn and St Pancras MP was speaking at a briefing on the projected impact of the new benefit, attended by local charity workers and leaders.

He said: “We saw the ‘hostile environment’ from the Home Office when it was the Windrush scandal. It will be the same with the Department of Work and Pensions, that you’re suspected of trying to cheat the system.”

The meeting on Monday morning also heard how one food-bank is now having to turn people away, in expectation of a surge in demand for their services as a result of people being worse off under Universal Credit.

Dorothea Hackman, who is the secretary of Euston Foodbank, said she had seen a 67pc increase in usage at the foodbank since the initial roll-out had begun, compared to the same period last year. She said the food bank is now cutting back the amount of packages it is giving out.

“It is not possible for us to help hundreds of people on a weekly basis as well as new people coming in,” she said.

“We have cut back to helping around 50 to 70 people in anticipation for us having to cover for more people affected by this.”

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The meeting was also attended by Camden Law Centre, the Mary Ward Centre, and representatives from Camden’s Citizens Advice, who have all been supporting claimants. Citizen’s Advice will be given money by the government to assist people going onto the benefit.

The new system has been partly implemented in the borough. On November 21, new claimants in Kilburn and West Hampstead will be applying for the new benefit, with it being rolled out across Camden in December, with some exemptions.

Universal Credit merges separate benefits into one payment. There has been concern about the number of people left worse off, with some claimants having to wait a number of weeks before their first payment. Unlike the current system, claimants can be sanctioned even if they are in work.

Council projections show there will be 25,927 claiming the new benefit across Camden. A quarter of them will be worse off as a result.

The impact was laid bare by Camden’s director of customer services Kate Robertson, who said 380 out of the 445 council tenants on the new benefit are in rent arrears. The total amount owed is just short of half a million pounds. The town hall has already given assurances that it will not evict council tenants who go into arrears because of Universal Credit.

The government has recent announced more money for the scheme, but according to Ms Robertson, the measures don’t go far enough.

Speaking afterwards, Sir Keir said that the policy was being mishandled by a “broken” government. “We will be fighting for further support for people. I think it could be this government’s Poll Tax moment because it impacts on so many people, including those in work.

“This government is broken, and the last few weeks have shown this with each decision, and they are struggling to find a way forward. Universal Credit is part of that mix.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal Credit replaces an out-of-date, complex benefits system that discouraged people moving into work.

“We’re committed to ensuring people get the support they need and the latest figures show 83pc of Universal Credit claimants are satisfied with the system.”