A CONTROVERSIAL benefit has been rolled out across parts of County Durham, leading to fears of additional hardship for people over the Christmas period.

Universal Credit was rolled out across Bishop Auckland, Crook, Stanley and Consett today (Wednesday).

The benefit is designed to replace a number of existing ones with a single payment and the Government says is aimed at helping people move into work more quickly.

Critics say the policy is flawed and will lead to hardship for people due to delayed payments. Anyone who applies for the credit now will not receive money before January.

North West Durham MP Laura Pidcock said: “I completely disagree with this decision to roll out Universal Credit in North West Durham today for two main reasons: firstly, because of the many flaws of the system, pointed out by experts and activists across the country and secondly, because of the date the Government have chosen to roll out this shambolic benefit change.

“Yes, I agree with the principle of simplifying the current security system, but what I object to is the fact that many vulnerable people could build up rent arrears or will have to rely on food banks, through the festive period and beyond.”

A spokesman for the DWP said: “Universal Credit lies at the heart of our commitment to help people improve their lives and raise their incomes. It provides additional, tailored support to help people move into work and stop claiming benefits altogether.

“And it’s working. With Universal Credit, people are moving into work faster and staying in work longer.”

On Tuesday, hundreds of Christmas presents were handed out by the County Durham Socialist Clothing Bank, based in Brandon, which had got additional funding to help buy more presents this year in preparation for the welfare changes.

Co-founder Dawn Willson said: “With the roll out of Universal Credit there are more and more people who are struggling with no payment until January at the earliest.

“We aim to put that smile on a child’s face at Christmas. No child should be punished due to a messed up benefit.”

A group of teenage girls from Brandon and Carrside Youth Community Project were involved in a skills development project with North-East charity The Key, through which they got £1,000 to buy toys for the clothes bank.

A total of 286 people benefitted from the scheme.

Ellie Wingfield, Abbie Peters, Tia Metcalfe, Beth Ross and Niamh Holmes were involved in the project.

Youth worker Rachael Avery said: “They’ve loved getting involved and getting the chance to put a smile on people’s faces.”