THE change to Universal Credit sparked criticism across the country. Now the system has been fully rolled out, Jobcentre Plus staff and customers on the ground are finding out if it works on a day to day basis.

OPINIONS on Universal Credit have been divided since the means-tested benefit was rolled out to replace other benefits payments last year.

Jobcentre Plus staff say the system is better than ever, but some claimants say they are having to feed their families on £87 per week.

Bolton’s Jobcentre Plus in Blackhorse Street was one of the final centres to transition fully to the new Universal Credit system in November last year.

The upheaval saw more than 4,500 people change over to the new way of claiming money to help with living costs.

Sajid Bharucha, 33, lives in Derby Street in Daubhill with his wife and three young children. He spoke to The Bolton News in the reception area of the Blackhorse Street site.

Unemployed for the first time, he says found coming to the Jobcentre and applying for Universal Credit difficult.

Mr Bharucha said: “I have been out of work for four weeks after my hours were cut. This is my first time at a Jobcentre.

“It’s hard because I prefer to be in work. I have three kids and — I’d prefer to be full time for them."

He says that he applied for Universal Credit but was told by staff that his wife would have to come to the Jobcentre with him every two weeks for appointments.

Mr Bharucha said he had been left with the option to claim child tax credit, but said he will only be entitled to £87.22 per week.

Mr Bharucha said: “I’m just going to have to cope, it’s going to be hard until I find another job. I used to earn £17,000 a year.

“My wife cannot come to meetings every two weeks for Universal Credit. That’s the issue I’ve got, she is looking after our children.”

Jobcentre staff responded saying that they would explain the Universal Credit system to Mr Bharucha again as he would still be able to claim.

The staff added that spouses are required to attend appointments with those claiming, but it depends on the age of the children at home.

Mr Bharucha says he wants to get back into the workforce as soon as possible: “I’ve had plenty of jobs so I have lots of skills, I was an assistant manager cashier, but I’ve also been in customer service.

“I’m open to getting a job as soon as possible, hopefully in the next two weeks. I’ve been for interviews and I’m waiting for people to call me back.”

Staff on the front lines tell a different story.

After initial criticism from the public about the five week wait before new claimants received their first payment, staff say they feel the new Universal Credit system has improved the situation for those seeking help, making it simpler and easier than ever to apply for and get payments while job seeking.

At the centre staff meet customers at the door, directing people to the banks of computers or to appointments with work coaches.

Joanne Stubbs, a staff member at the Blackhorse Street branch, said: “The online form is so much better. It’s yes or no questions.

“It was so laborious before.”

Now, staff members have access to more shared information through the online system, including a journal where those receiving Universal Credit can ask questions without having to come in for appointments.

People claiming the benefit will also be allocated a work coach to receive tailored advice about what they need to get back into work if unemployed.

Amy Pond, the senior operations manager for Jobcentre Plus sites across Greater Manchester, said: “Universal Credit has changed a lot since it first went live.

“A lot of the changes have been a result of front facing staff so that the system will make more sense.

“They might say “we have never seen this before” about a particular situation and say something needs altering.

“All the time it is changing and improving. It was far less flexible before.”

Universal Credit replaced the benefits including child tax credit, housing benefit, income support, income-based Jobseeker’s Allowance, income-related employment and support allowance and working tax credit.

Judging by the most recent data around unemployment, from May 2019, the new system is working.

Over the last five years, the number of claimants and unemployed people seeking benefits has dropped by 18 per cent to 8,617 people across Bolton, according to the Jobcentre Plus figures.

The figure has risen by just 49 people over the last year.

The number of young people unemployed in Bolton local authority has also seen a dip, down 30 per cent in comparison to the figure five years ago.

Bolton South East, the constituency with the highest number of unemployed, has also seen a 21 per cent decrease in the figure which now stands at 3,760 people.

Penny Applegate, Bolton Partnership Manager, said: “Unemployment is at a much better figure than it was five years ago and it has been almost static for a year now.”

n Do you have experiences with Universal Credit? Let us know by emailing letters@theboltonnews.co.uk