Debt charity StepChange said many claimants are being pushed into hardship by having to wait more than a month for their first Universal Credit payment after migrating from older benefits.
And measures recently announced by Chancellor Rishi Sunak to help with the cost-of-living crisis have been criticised for not going far enough to help low-income households.
In Bedford, 10,517 households were claiming Universal Credit in February after being transferred from legacy benefits, while an estimated 4,419 remained on the old system, according to figures from the House of Commons library.
This means around 30 per cent of households are still on older benefits, such as Employment Allowance, Income Support and Jobseeker’s Allowance, which are set to be fully replaced in two years’ time.
StepChange said moving from legacy benefits to Universal Credit – which rolls six means-tested benefit payments into one monthly deposit – is challenging because new claimants must wait five weeks for their first instalment, meaning some people need a budgeting advance, while others can be pushed into debt.
Ed McDonagh, senior public policy advocate, said: "Overall, Universal Credit can work to support people, but it also has features that can cause real hardship and can actually worsen people’s debt as they try to work around them.”
In his spring statement, Mr Sunak did not respond to calls to increase Universal Credit and legacy benefits in line with inflation – which means many will see a real-terms benefit cut from April – instead announcing that £12 million would be provided to reduce tax credit error and fraud and “in turn support a smooth transition to Universal Credit”.
Households still on legacy benefits also missed out on the £20 uplift to Universal Credit introduced during the coronavirus pandemic.
However, Dr Phil Agulnik, director of online benefits calculator EntitledCo, said "not everyone should be in a rush to move" from legacy benefits to Universal Credit, and that differences in payments mean an estimated one million people could be worse off after making the switch.