DESPERATE housing tenants are being forced to choose to ‘eat or heat’ as a crisis caused by the introduction of the new Universal Credit benefits system in East Lothian leaves them strapped for cash.

East Lothian Foodbank has seen a surge in referrals since the introduction of the new digital benefits system, with the number of people needing help in November last year almost doubling from the previous year.

The foodbank revealed it handed out more than three tonnes of food to feed 383 people in November – including 145 children.

Peter Dicker, manager of the foodbank, said: “Benefit-related issues and benefit delays are an increasing reason for referrals.

“Since Universal Credit has been introduced, we have seen a significant increase in referrals month on month.”

A report to East Lothian Council’s policy and performance committee yesterday (Wednesday), revealed that the new system, which gives benefits to people in one single payment, instead of paying landlords the housing amount of the money due direct, has had a direct impact on rent arrears and rising debt among tenants.

It revealed that by the end of the financial year, the council would be facing £1.7million in rent arrears from its tenants.

Kenny Christie, council service manager for revenue, told the committee the new way of paying benefits was a “significant change to the way people have to manage their finances”, adding that delays in paying out the new benefits were causing problems.

Mr Christie said his team were visiting tenants to offer help with organising their finances so they could meet their rent from the new payments.

But he said this meant they were discovering people in vulnerable positions who needed additional support for the first time.

He said: “Council officers are now often just discovering the vulnerability of some tenants and residents, as many previously received maximum housing benefit and there was not always a full awareness of their circumstances, eg mental health issues, addictions, literacy, numeracy and financial difficulties.”

Currently, East Lothian Council can only apply for housing benefits to be paid directly to them as landlords once a tenant is in arrears; they want the power to have the housing element of the new single payment paid directly to them before tenants fall into difficulty.

Another housing official told the committee fuel poverty was also becoming an issue under the new system.

She said: “Tenants are being faced in some cases with having to choose to eat or heat. We are working with ScottishPower, which has a hardship scheme, and have asked about the possibility of a pre-paid meter cards being available through foodbanks.”

East Lothian became the first local authority to roll out the full digital Universal Credit system in March last year in what the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) called a test and learn environment; however, the delays caused by moving people from the old system to new has led to people falling behind in rent or facing weeks without any money coming in.

In December, the DWP sent its operational excellence delivery team to East Lothian to see the problems firsthand after the council’s chief executive called on them to get involved.

However, the report to the committee this week said the expert team had made it clear they would not be back and expected problems to be dealt with at a lower level.

It said: “DWP officers advised that this engagement had been arranged on a one-off basis and that there were no plans for the team to work with East Lothian Council officers in the future.”

The comments were described by Councillor Peter MacKenzie, the committee’s acting convenor, as “a form of arrogance”.

He said: “It is a form of arrogance and it is beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable.”

Councillor Fraser McAllister described the Universal Credit system as an “aggressive, malign piece of social engineering”. He added: “This is a class war, pure and simple.”

Councillor Paul McLennan called for the DWP to be asked to attend the next meeting of the committee in March to answer questions about the system, which he called “disgusting”.

The committee agreed to invite representatives from the Scottish and UK Governments to attend the next meeting to discuss the issue.

Councillor Jim Goodfellow, committee member, called for Holyrood to use its devolved power to allow local authorities to collect housing benefit separately immediately.

He said: “The Scottish Government has the power to make changes to rent payments and has done nothing.

“This is a partnership, when are they going to do something about it?”