AN EMERGENCY fund needs to be set up in Oxford because the government has ignored calls for a benefit change to be delayed, the city council has claimed.

Senior councillors look set to approve money being diverted into a £50,000 pot to help people who will be paid Universal Credit from next Wednesday.

New claimants in Oxford will collect Universal Credit as part of a benefits change approved by the government earlier this month, but it has emerged people calling a helpline could be charged up to 55p a minute.

Some of those will need to wait for six weeks for their first money, while the council said it worries a fifth of claimants might need to wait even longer.

Oxford’s MPs Anneliese Dodds and Layla Moran, the council and Citizens Advice Oxford have all said they are worried that claimants could be pushed into debt.

The government has refused to pause the roll-out, which will affect tens of thousands of people in Oxfordshire by the time it is complete in 2022.

At Prime Minister's Questions. Theresa May said Universal Credit ensured a ‘simpler, more straightforward’ system and that if people are put into difficultly, advanced payments are available.

But Oxford City Council's deputy leader and board member for customer and corporate services Councillor Susan Brown said: "If you claim Universal Credit you can ask for an advance payment, but this is only half of your expected award and it is not enough to live on while you wait. Waiting periods and delays mean that Universal Credit leads to debt, rent arrears and the risk of homelessness and this is unacceptable.

She added: "The government has not heeded calls for Universal Credit rollout to be delayed, so we are taking action to help support Oxford residents who make new claims."

The council's plan to divert the money is likely to be formally approved at an executive board meeting on Monday.

Once approved the money will be given to claimants to help with utility bills and living costs while they await their Universal Credit.

Yesterday Mrs May added: “We have been listening to the concerns raised in relation to the way Universal Credit has operated. Changes have been made, performance has increased.

“Of course there is more for us to do and that is why the secretary of state (David Gauke) and the Department for Work and Pensions continue to monitor this and continue to ensure that performance increases..”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn asked her whether the helpline would be made free but she would not be drawn on its cost.

Some claimants in South Oxfordshire and Vale of White Horse districts have begun to receive Universal Credit this month. It will be introduced in West Oxfordshire and Cherwell districts from next month. West Oxfordshire and Cherwell district councils said neither of them will offer new support to claimants because of the roll-out.