Citizens Advice Scotland is calling for a raft of reforms to the benefit.
Long waiting times for Universal Credit (UC) payments are forcing claimants into a spiral of debt and stress, according to Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS).
The advice agency said the current five-week wait for a first payment leaves people struggling to heat their home, pay bills or even buy food.
In many cases, this can have a significant impact on claimants’ mental and physical health, while also leading them to take on ever more debt just to make ends meet.
A new briefing for the agency cites some examples of how UC is damaging people’s lives.
In one instance, a family with young children claimed the benefit after the husband had to stop working in order to care for his disabled wife. Despite taking an advance, they fell into rent arrears and now face months of reduced payments until the advance is paid off.
Another case, from the north of Scotland, saw a young woman with disabilities wait nine weeks for her first payment because of processing errors. This led her to her falling into debt while being forced to reply on food parcels to survive.
CAS is now calling on the chancellor to reduce waiting times and make non-refundable advance hardship payments available to all claimants when he announces his spending review later this week.
Other recommendations include “run-on” payments of previous benefits being extended when people are moved on to UC, and systematic improvements to processing so that fewer claims are delayed.
Mhoraig Green, CAS social justice spokesperson, said: “The Citizens Advice network in Scotland sees hundreds of thousands of people every year, and many of these cases are people who have had problems with UC.
“Our evidence has consistently shown the five-week wait to be one of the most problematic features of UC. It can cause or exacerbate debt problems, as payment of rent, council tax, utilities and other priority bills may immediately be put at risk, particularly if someone has no savings or has delayed making a claim.
“It can also leave people struggling to afford food and other essentials. Indeed, clients have had to resort to foodbanks, Crisis Grants and high cost credit, such as payday loans, just to get by. Many clients have also reported increased stress and negative impacts on their mental and physical health as a result of the wait.”
Ms Green added: “In the meantime, anyone who is currently struggling with UC or needs help to make an application can get free confidential and impartial advice from their local Citizens Advice Bureau.”