Party joins charities in calling for roll-out to be paused as claimants run up rent arrears and incur debts while waiting for payments. Universal credit is in “total disarray”, Labour has said, after a government study found that lengthy benefit payment waiting times were causing claimants to run up hundreds of pounds in debt and rent arrears. Labour joined welfare charities in calling for the planned roll-out of the benefit to be paused in the light of mounting evidence that design and administration problems are causing financial hardship for vulnerable and low-income households. One in four new universal credit claimants waited more than 42 days for a first payment, while nearly half of families said moving on to the benefit had led them to fall behind with rent for the first time. Debbie Abrahams, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said: “The government’s flagship universal credit programme is in total disarray. It is unacceptable that one in four claimants are waiting more than six weeks to receive support, alongside mounting debts and arrears among recipients. “I have written to the secretary of state requesting that he immediately halt the roll-out of universal credit to contain the misery being caused by the disastrous mishandling of this programme.” The work and pensions select committee has launched an inquiry into universal credit after hearing evidence from landlords, charities and tenants about extensive problems associated with it. Frank Field, the committee chair, said: “Everything I have seen so far, on the committee and in my constituency, points to fundamental flaws in the operation of universal credit, which must be resolved before the full service roll-out proceeds.” The Department for Work and Pensions evaluation found that 42% of all claimant families surveyed said the wait for a first universal credit payment to be processed and DWP administrative errors were the cause of their rent arrears. Four in 10 households were in rent arrears eight weeks after the claim was made, with nearly one in three still in arrears four months later. One in five owed £1,000 or more. Four out of five said they had never been in arrears before. Half of new claimants needed a DWP loan to help pay for living expenses such as food and gas bills while they waited for a first payment, while nearly one-third borrowed cash from family or friends. About one in 10 took out loans with payday or doorstep lenders. The department pointed to encouraging findings in the evaluation suggesting that overall, families moving on to universal credit were coping well with monthly payments and happy with the support provided by jobcentre staff in helping them find work or increase their working hours. A DWP spokesperson said: “Universal credit is getting more people into work than the old system. It mirrors the way most people in work are paid, helping to ease the transition into employment. “The majority of claimants are comfortable managing their budgets, and for people who need extra support, advance payments are available.” However, the evaluation found the experience of universal credit was much less positive for low-income families, workers with irregular work patterns, lone parents, claimants with a disability or long-term illness, and people who had difficulty accessing or using the internet. The government study confirmed Citizens Advice research published this week that found universal credit could push claimants into serious debt. The charity’s chief executive, Gillian Guy, said: “It is clearer than ever that the government must pause the roll-out of universal credit and fix the problems with this benefit.” Universal credit was introduced in 2013 to simplify the social security system by rolling six main benefits into one. However, management failings and IT problems have left it years behind schedule, while budget cuts mean millions of working families moving on to the benefit will be worse off. New universal credit claimants wait a minimum of 42 days for a first payment. This comprises a seven day “waiting period” before a claim can be made, a one-month assessment period to determine how much the claimant should be paid, and a further week for the payment to go through. In practice, however, charities say many claimants wait even longer for a first payment. People on low incomes often have few or no savings to tide them over during the waiting period, forcing them to turn to debt and food banks. The DWP has stood by the 42-day wait, arguing that it is needed to get claimants on to a monthly payment schedule, and newly unemployed claimants should expect to have one month’s salary to fall back on. However, charities say one in four workers are not paid monthly, meaning they have to survive for at least six weeks on two weeks’ pay. Earlier this year, the Trussell Trust reported that food bank referral rates were running at more than double the national average in areas where universal credit had been rolled out. The trust said benefit delays led to debt, mental illness, rent arrears and eviction.