These women were taken to court for eviction because of universal credit errors gas and bloating after every meal

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For Susan Stallan, the consequences of similar universal credit mistakes were very nearly fatal. It was the start of this year and the 57-year-old was facing two court summonses – one for eviction and one for unpaid council tax. Both were thanks to debts created by DWP mistakes.

Now BuzzFeed News can reveal how serious and repeated errors in implementing the Conservatives’ flagship welfare policy are leaving people to fight eviction in court through no fault of their own. DWP’s failure to pay the correct housing benefit owed to people on universal credit is causing those already living on the breadline to build up debt to social landlords who then take out eviction proceedings.

Urgent messages are ignored for weeks at a time, often only getting a response after several follow-up calls. Other times claimants are given bizarre, irrelevant replies, even as they say they are going to court and are terrified of becoming homeless. It is typical for every response to be given by a different agent from a different call centre around the UK – even during a single conversation.

When people try to solve the issues they find that the landlord is unable to get hold of universal credit staff directly. Social landlords, who have an obligation to help solve people’s benefit problems before trying to kick them out, are instead taking them straight to court to evict them.

Lawyers working with claimants have told BuzzFeed News that the DWP’s handling of the cases and its failure to admit errors are similar to the Home Office’s heavily criticised Windrush approach of focusing only on policy enforcement and ignoring the real hardships caused to the people affected.

“Getting DWP to admit to the errors is the hardest thing,” said Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, which has solicitors in courts around the country representing people facing eviction. “It’s like Windrush in that the onus of proof goes back to the victim when there’s a wrong decision. You have to prove that they’ve made a mistake.”

On 11 April, Ampofo wrote on her account: “My landlord is taking me to court for claiming possession of the property tomorrow at 11:00am when I spoke to Victoria on the 14th of March about the court date she said they’ll make payment before that and I have been calling your office and they’ve been giving me different excuses. I spoke to somebody on Monday and the person said that the decision maker is not available until Monday the 16th can some one please look into it ASAP.” No reply came that day.

BuzzFeed News was in Croydon county court when the case was heard earlier this month. Ampofo was given advice by Leena Jangra, the solicitor on duty in Croydon from the local Law Centre, a service that could now be under threat thanks to changes in legal aid contracts. Commenting on the DWP’s handling of Ampofo’s case, Jangra said: “They know that she’s entitled to it and should have made that payment. It makes no sense why they haven’t.”

Clarion claims that Ampofo got support and that staff liaised directly with the DWP a number of the times on her behalf. But despite knowledge of her benefit difficulties, it did not stop court proceedings intended to evict her and her children.

In court, Jangra sought out the housing association representative who would be making the case for eviction to negotiate ahead of the proceedings. The woman, who works in accounts, said: “My instructions are to make an outright order for possession.”

When trying to resolve a similar universal credit case earlier that day, Jangra had asked the same representative if her client could be referred to Clarion’s benefits support team. The woman replied: “Do you want me to be honest with you? They’ve shut their books at the moment because they’re so inundated. I can’t be sure when she’d be picked up and it wouldn’t be fair to her.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “Due to incorrect information provided by Ms Ampofo when changing tenancy, she was not receiving the correct housing payment. We have updated her account and a payment for arrears will be issued within the next 7 days.”

Polly Neate, chief executive of the charity Shelter, said: “Every day at Shelter, we hear from families drowning in debt or battling against eviction because of changes to welfare including universal credit. The housing payment is set so low that many can barely pay the rent, while errors have left others at risk of being kicked out.

At the same time, the council was told by the DWP that she could afford a higher rate of council tax and upped her monthly bill to £53. By January the council issued her with a court summons for her failure to pay £106 council tax, with legal fees on top.

In repeated messages on her journal, she tells them she is being taken to court and that they need to pay the rent arrears and put right their error, begging “can you please help as I don’t want to be homeless” and telling them the impact on her health. In some cases her messages are never replied to; other times it is days before a reply comes – and it is often cold and irrelevant.

“I kept messaging them and asking them about the rent arrears but they said they couldn’t do anything until the landlord wrote to them. I spoke to the landlord and told them, but it was like banging your head against a brick wall. I explained to them it wasn’t me, it was universal credit.” Her landlord, which is also Clarion Housing, insists that Stallan was provided support from its specialist welfare benefits team.

From January she turned the heating off because she couldn’t afford the bills. “I didn’t have the money to pay it and I thought it’s best not to use it.” She would sit on her sofa, wrapped in a duvet, desperately applying for job after job on her computer and getting nowhere. Even when it snowed and the pipes froze she only turned on the hot water for an hour to warm the pipes and have a shower.

After the council tax summons came, she sold her late mother’s wedding and engagement rings, as well as her own. She was trying to be practical but the emotional effect was devastating. “It was stuff I wanted to keep. You’ve got your memories of your parents, but that to me meant a lot because that’s what she left me and I had to get rid of it. That’s what hurt most. That’s when I hit rock bottom.”

After many more messages and conversations, universal credit staff finally sent her some money for the missed rent in March. In a message on her journal, an agent writes: “I am sorry that you have experienced such difficulty in resolving the rent issue and I apologise for our part in this. I have passed details of the events leading to this situation, to a Senior Manager to consider what went wrong.”

In the end, after an intervention from her lawyer, Croydon council cleared the arrears with a discretionary payment. Despite the fact that the rent arrears has now been cleared, £63 is still being deducted from Stallan’s universal credit, supposedly to clear the debt.

When BuzzFeed News visited her last week her fridge was still empty, save for some butter and some reused water bottles. Her freezer had a loaf of bread and a bit of old mince in it, and she had no money left to get food for the next six days.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We have apologised to Ms Stallan. We have paid the arrears due to her in full and are updating her payment statements to reflect this. We are now working with her council and landlord to ensure all other arrears are cleared.”