THE number of people claiming Universal Credit in Bolton has risen by hundreds since 2018.

A shift towards low wage work and part-time contracts has contributed to a hike in the number of people claiming Universal Credit — leaving people struggling to make ends meet despite being in work.

At just over 76 per cent, the employment rate for the North West is at a high but the number of Universal Credit claimants has risen in Bolton.

The number of people claiming the benefit stood at 8,738 during September to November of 2019. The figure marks an increase of 756 people in comparison with the same period in 2018.

The surge comes as a surprise to Penny Applegate, a Bolton Job Centre manager: “These figures are quite surprising to me because they are usually going down. There are now more people being counted in the ‘searching for work’ group, that’s why the claimant count has gone up.”

The Job Centre boss says that the rise may be coming from people on a low wage or in a short-term contract that, despite being in work, still need help to make ends meet.

Ms Applegate said: “The employment rate is still very good. I think there’s more instability in jobs. People working for one employer throughout their lives, that doesn’t happen as much now. There’s short contracts and things are more fluid in the job market. That’s more and more the case and I don’t see a reverse in that.

“People will claim, maybe for a short time but they will claim between jobs or when they are seeking a second part-time job. Lots of people move jobs now than in the past — that’s a reflection of the industries that have developed and that’s a change across the country.

“I think the majority of people would prefer longer contracts and more stable wages.”

Flexible and part-time contracts can work for some jobseekers, particularly young people, says the employment boss, but the number of young people claiming the benefit has risen in the last year. Even if young people are in part-time employment, it may not be enough to get by.

The number of claimants aged 18 to 24 across Bolton stands at 1,427, according to the latest figures from the Department for Work and Pensions. The figure is a 23 per cent rise, accounting for more than 200 people, in comparison to the same period a year prior.

Ms Applegate said: “For some people, it does suit them, such as students.”

But the lurch away from companies advertising full-time work is still a major difficulty for many — one that can mean people are forced to seek emergency help to survive, especially when they cannot get consistent hours of paid work.

Ms Applegate said: “The majority want that stability and to be in work full time, all the time — particularly if you have regular commitments like paying a mortgage. Unfortunately we have to adapt to the world of work now.

“For a lot of people it gives them uncertainty, that’s why the benefit is there. It’s there to be the safety net without putting too many barriers when a short-term contract does end or they don’t get hours.”

Ms Applegate added that potential claimants are catching up with the rollout of Universal Credit. The monthly benefit system came to Bolton in November 2018 and people are still finding out now that they can get payments even if they are in a contract.

She said: “It means they were struggling before on a low wage, maybe not realising they could get the benefit, are getting it now. That’s what combining six benefits into one is supposed to help with — there’s a greater awareness of claiming.

“We’re making sure those people get the benefit. People do come on and off Universal Credit quite regularly between jobs which is what this system is designed for.”

But some local leaders seriously disagree with the combined benefit.

Bolton South East MP Yasmin Qureshi says the new system ‘cannot account’ for the kind of claims people on zero hours contract need, which can vary greatly week to week depending on the hours they get.

The MP said: “There are a lot problems with Universal Credit, but there’s also a lot of problems with flexible working. 

“So many employers avoid their responsibilities, not paying holidays, offering zero hours contracts. Most of the jobs are zero hour contracts, not because employers have not got the jobs available, but because they are trying to depress the market so they can get away from their legal obligations as an employer.

“You have people who are working but are living in poverty — it’s disgraceful.”

The Bolton South East constituency has the highest number of people claiming Universal Credit out of the three local constituencies and has also seen the biggest jump in the last year.  The figure for the area stands at 3,794 people claiming as of November 2019, a nine per cent rise in comparison to the same period in 2018.

Of those people, more than 500 are in the 18-24 age bracket — a 20 per cent increase on the figure from 2018.

In comparison, Bolton West has just 1,934 people seeking Universal Credit.  Ms Qureshi says that the new system has not favoured constituents like hers.

Ms Qureshi said: “The figures do not surprise me. My constituency is considered to be the most deprived in terms of social indicators.

“A lot of people are doing zero hour contracts, I know the problems first hand.

“People want to work but they end up having to use food banks when they can’t pay their bills.

“Universal Credit has affected my constituents really badly.”

Ms Qureshi believes Universal Credit should be stopped and restructured. This comes after seeing constituents working in flexible contracts who say they have been failed by the system: “It should be stopped until its worked out how to deal with temporary contracts. We have got to find a system that allows the proper claims to be done.”

But changes to the benefit system will not solve the problem, says the MP.

“We need to encourage employers to be responsible.  “This government has made it easy for employers to get out of their responsibility to provide proper jobs, it’s been encouraged,” said Ms Qureshi.