Joe Anderson: Universal credit could mean Christmas is cancelled for struggling families

“When you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing to lose”, sang Bob Dylan.

Unfortunately that’s not true. When you’ve got nothing you can still keep on falling through the cracks. This is what’s happening with the roll-out of universal credit.

The government’s aim is to integrate a series of benefits into a single payment, in a bid to cut the welfare bill and encourage work.

That’s what it says on the tin. As is often the case with central government policies, however, the reality is very different.

The Resolution Foundation think tank calculates the move to universal credit will see some working families left facing a benefit reduction of up to £2,800 a year. Many of these will be the “just about managing” families Theresa May was once so concerned with.

Meanwhile, Citizens’ Advice says the policy is too complicated – with people struggling to understand it – and a lack of support when the system fails them.

Having been rolled-out in a piecemeal fashion, there is about to be a ramp-up in the numbers moving to UC. But the cracks are already there to see.

One of the most damaging aspects of the changeover is the retrospective nature of the payment.

Recipients can have to wait up to six weeks between applying for the benefit and receiving any money. They turn to us, the local authority, funded by council taxpayers, for emergency support to stop them being evicted and for food, heating and lighting.

We spend around £18m a year preventing people becoming homeless and supporting them through our Citizens Support Scheme, Mayoral Fund and other grants.

We have also allocated funding to each of our 30 wards across the city, so that councillors can recommend small grants to community and local voluntary organisations that are best-placed to help residents with basic needs.

Only millionaire ministers and salaried civil servants could devise a system that has absolutely no understanding of the way in which the poorest people in our society need to rob Peter to pay Paul – and that’s at the best of times.

You simply cannot leave people, many with children, with no money for weeks on end.

As a result, councils like mine are forced to cover the gap, helping to keep poor families out of the clutches of loan sharks and payday lenders. Already, 11,000 people in Liverpool have been transitioned to the new benefit – but this is set to increase dramatically in the coming months.

Despite losing two-thirds of our central government funding since 2010, we will always protect the most vulnerable. We are doing what we can, but we are stretched very thin.

This is the biggest-ever change to the benefits system, with seven million people transferring over to the benefit by 2022.

Government policy should be worked through before it is rolled-out. The poor deserve better than to be placed in a Whitehall petri-dish. Especially as there is a basic fallacy at the very heart of universal credit.

Rather than “curbing the costs of welfare” as ministers insist, universal credit simply passports the bill from central to local government. We are left picking up the pieces of botched policy with our council tax payers left picking up the bill.

David Gauke, the work and pensions secretary, needs to engage with reality.

He should show some humility and admit there are massive problems with the system which must be addressed before even more families find themselves at their wits’ end, trying to cope with no money.

As we head towards Christmas, he will not want to be remembered as the secretary of state who cancelled Christmas for millions of families just about managing to make ends meet.

Joe Anderson is mayor of Liverpool.

More from LabourList