Moray councillors have clashed over figures showing the struggle council tenants on universal credit are facing to pay their rent.
Members of the communities committee met yesterday to hear about the substantial increase in rent owed to the local authority.
But one Elgin councillor argued the controversial single monthly benefit payment was doing what it was supposed to do.
The local figures have been published for the first time since its introduction. During 2018-19, tenant rent arrears increased by 26%, from £275,508 to £347,110 (£71,602).
The head of the council’s housing service Richard Anderson claimed Moray was still among the lowest rent arrears in Scotland.
The local authority can take the housing benefit included in universal credit directly from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
But that’s only for vulnerable people or those who have been in arrears for two months or longer.
The rent of more than 330 tenants was being paid this way.
Universal credit was rolled out in Moray on June 27 last year.
The average outstanding debt owed by those on universal credit was significantly higher than those not on it. As of May 7, the respective averages were £447.39 and £240.54.
On that same date, 70% of tenants on the single benefit payment were in arrears.
Elgin City North councillor Paula Coy said: “It wasn’t a surprise to me to find that 70% are in rent arrears. It’s extremely sad.
“Obviously that £447 average means some people’s debt will be higher than that.
“The thing with universal credit is the prospect of getting out of the arrears debt is nigh on impossible and this is pretty much a cross to bear for every one of them.”
However, Elgin City South Tory member Ray McLean said: “Universal credit was designed to help people into work and there’s a good argument it’s done that.
“Unemployment is at its lowest since 1974 so you could say it has done some of what it was intended to do.
That didn’t cut any ice with Mrs Coy of the SNP, who claimed the only way to address the harm and poverty the single benefit system was causing was “to stop it and restart it when it is fit for purpose”.