New warning over Universal Credit
Too little has been done to prepare claimants for a new benefit system, Citizens Advice warned after a survey found almost half felt unready to claim online and 22% did not have the right banking facilities.
The Government's troubled Universal Credit - which brings together six out-of-work benefits into one - is due to be piloted in several more areas of England and Wales by the spring.
But the charity said conversations with more than 1,000 clients in affected parts of the country exposed a dramatic lack of help for people struggling to cope with the shake-up.
More than one in five did not have access to direct debits and bill payments and other banking services needed to claim the new payments, they found.
Some 49% said they would struggle with online forms - with 47% having no home internet.
The survey found 83% were not ready to budget with single monthly payments and would find an adjustment period of fortnightly, rather than monthly, payments helpful to cope - 86% felt they lacked vital information and 75% wanted rent to continue to be paid directly to their landlord.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: "For Universal Credit to be the revolutionary reform ministers promised, we desperately need to know how people moving onto the new benefit are going to be supported.
"The idea of a single universal benefit is a good one but the poor, unclear delivery is a big risk to our clients' well-being.
"This is an issue for now, not four years' time. Ministers cannot kick these problems into the long grass. Citizens Advice bureaux will work tirelessly to help people manage the upheaval, but we need much clearer, stronger support from Government.
"Our research shows how risky it is to plough ahead with this huge new reform without taking the time to get the details right. Unless ministers address these glaring problems, there is a real danger that some people will be left without the support they need and unable to pay bills."
She welcomed the slowing of the roll-out of the new system to new areas as the Department for Work and Pensions grapples with serious IT and other problems in delivering the reform.
But she said that would " be for nothing" if ministers don't act on the clear evidence that much more needs to be done to help people cope with these huge changes.
She added: "Many challenges remain in delivering this project safely, but with some small changes to how support is actually paid to recipients, ministers can help set people's minds at rest."
The Citizens Advice Bureaux involved in the study were in Hammersmith and Fulham - where the system was introduced last week - Harrogate, Bath and North East Somerset, Flintshire and Brancab (Bedworth, Rugby, Nuneaton and Tamworth) which are due to take part from the spring.
A total of 1,008 clients who will qualify for Universal Credit completed a survey.
The Department for Work and Pensions accused the charity of "scaremongering" and defended the support it had put in place.
A spokesman said: "We have always been very clear local face-to-face support will be in place to help claimants move over to Universal Credit - working with local councils and partners such as Citizens Advice. That is why we are running pilots around the country to test just this.
"By failing to acknowledge that this intensive support is available for claimants, Citizens Advice just risks scaremongering and causing unnecessary alarm.
"A massive positive side effect of Universal Credit will be the help to get more people into mainstream banking and online - already over 80% of claims for Jobseekers Allowance are online and we are investing £38 million to increase credit union membership by one million, so claimants can have access to a range of financial products."