A PILOT of the new Universal Credit system of benefits has been branded an “experiment in cruelty” by a local councillor.

East Lothian is the first local authority in Scotland to roll out the full Digital Universal Credit Service, which has to be claimed online, and replaces previous benefits such as housing, jobseekers’ allowance and income support with a single monthly payment.

The online system was introduced in the county in March but a meeting of East Lothian Council’s audit and governance committee on Tuesday heard it was already putting a strain on those receiving benefits and officials trying to help them.

Many people were facing delays of up to eight weeks before the new payments were introduced after their old benefits had stopped, leaving them with no money.

Councillor John Williamson, a ward member for Musselburgh West, said he had been approached by a number of people struggling to cope with the new system. He said: “If you are a single claimant it seems to go okay but if you have a partner or dependants it seems they are being put through the sausage machine and left without money for some time.”

And he said the debt this caused during the delay was something many would never be able recover from financially.

East Lothian was chosen for the pilot as it offers a different demographic to the areas currently being tested in England, such as London and Great Yarmouth. So far, 124 council tenants have been switched from the old benefits system to the new digital Universal Credit system.

One of the biggest concerns about the new credit system was the effect on rent arrears in East Lothian.

Under the old housing benefit system, rent was paid directly to the local authority from a tenant’s housing benefit allowance fortnightly. Under the new system, the benefits are all paid to the tenant monthly, who then has to budget the money.

Councillor Fraser McAllister said East Lothian Council already had one of the worst rent arrears debt in the country despite charging one of the lowest rents. He said the new credits gave those in need less and put them under more pressure.

He added: “We are living in a high-cost, low-wage society. It is an experiment and like all experiments there are unknowns but one of the most definite outcomes is that the poor and most vulnerable in our society will become poorer and more vulnerable. It is an experiment in cruelty.”

The new system means the council faces having to collect an additional £8.3million in rent from tenants rather than relying on the money coming in automatically.

Kenny Christie, council service manager for revenue, admitted his department was already “feeling the strain” of the new system.

And he said claimants were already making tough choices, saying: “We are seeing evidence of it already. People are saying ‘I did not pay you [rent] because I had to put food on the table'. That is the reality. It is a significant change.”

The Department for Work and Pensions said anyone experiencing difficulty should contact JobCentre Plus in Musselburgh. A spokesperson said: “Short-term support is available to cover any delay and we are offering personal budget support and can direct people to various money advice services available if there are concerns.”