CIVIC chiefs in Winchester have launched a ‘ground-breaking’ pilot scheme to help residents struggling to deal with the transition to Universal Credit.

The three-month-long Winchester FIRST pilot, launched by Winchester City Council, aims to support residents transitioning onto the new benefits system.

It will see a group of residents in the city due to receive Universal Credit issued with a Mastercard account that their benefits will be paid into.

However, the account will have a ‘special wallet’ that will hold housing benefit funds to ensure there is enough money left for residents to pay rent each month – which may solve one of the criticisms levelled against the government system.

The scheme was unveiled by the city council’s portfolio holder for finance Guy Ashton at a cabinet meeting last week and is the brainchild of the city council’s benefits and welfare team.

Mr Ashton said: “Winchester City Council is taking the lead in providing a positive and empowering level of support, education and assistance to its residents as they transition to Universal Credit.

“By creating an imaginative and ground-breaking programme, the council is building a way of making Universal Credit work better for our residents.

“I hope that our pilot programme will inspire other local authorities to learn and participate in similar schemes.”

Mr Ashton added that the pilot will see thousands of residents who are struggling under the benefits system helped and that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) would be paying close attention to the results.

As part of the staggered roll-out of Universal Credit nationwide, Winchester is due to begin using the new system from July 2018.

Universal Credit was first announced in November 2010 by the then Conservative work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, but it has faced fierce criticism for a number of issues, including that 1.4 million would be made worse off according to independent analysis.

Concerns have been raised about the impact on self-employed people, long waits to get the benefit paid to new claimants, as well as the change in the way housing benefit money is handled, leaving some people struggling to pay their rent or put food on the table.

Under the housing benefit system the funds could go directly to landlords to ensure that rent got paid, but under Universal Credit the entire amount is handed to the claimant, particularly impacting those who struggle to manage their money.

As a result there have been reports of landlords refusing to take on Universal Credit claimants

According to the government, the aim the benefit system changes were to encourage more people to get into work and punish those sponging off the benefits system, as well as rolling the various out-of-work benefits and in-work supports, including housing benefit, into one monthly payment.

A Winchester City Council spokeswoman said that in addition to the pilot scheme, it would be offering residents banking and budgeting awareness workshops.