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Mentally ill universal credit claimant receives less than £6 for month after £312 deducted for sanctions

'This poverty has no prejudice. This is the kind of thing that drives people to homelessness, and to suicide'

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 03 July 2019 13:38 BST
Shadow work and pensions secretary: 'Shocking poverty figures highlight the devastating impact of austerity on families across the country'

A mentally unwell universal credit claimant received less than £6 for the month after hundreds of pounds were withdrawn from their allowance.

A letter from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) addressed to the Manchester resident, who did not wish to be named, stated that £312 had been taken off their monthly benefit allowance "for sanctions", leaving them with just £5.82.

The Independent was unable to confirm what the sanctions were for.

“If you have trouble making your money last for the month, you can ask for help with budgeting," the letter stated in a paragraph near the bottom.

The document was shared with Manchester-based poverty group Barakah Food Aid by a member of staff in the DWP, who reportedly told the group they were "so angry" that this was what they were seeing "week in week out".

Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood accused the government of "leaving people on the edge of destitution" after it emerged.

It comes amid mounting criticism of the DWP's sanctions regime, which penalises benefit claimants who miss jobcentre appointments or fail to show that they are doing enough to find work by reducing their financial support.

The system has previously been branded “arbitrarily punitive” by the work and pensions committee, while a government report last year found there was “no evidence” that benefits sanctions were encouraging people into work or increasing their earnings.

Manzoor Ali, director of Barakah Food Aid, which offers donated food and toiletries to people struggling to get by, said it was common for claimants to have large sums of money deducted from their monthly support.

Between 10 and 15 similar letters were seen by the charity each week, he said.

“It’s common. They might get £20, or £60 or £5 taken off in sanctions," he added. "In some cases they give people zero for the month. And often they’ve got children. What are they supposed to do?

“We’ve had situations where a mum is receiving benefits and they are on their way to the jobcentre, then her child has an accident she has to go collect them, so she misses the appointment. Then the sanctions begin. Everything gets stopped. They have to then re-apply for their benefits and that can take another few weeks.

“We get referrals from schools, where teachers might see an upset parent, or a malnourished child, and things come to light. We’ve come across mothers on the verge of prostitution to feed their children."

Mr Ali said a growing number of claimants were contacting the charity in desperation after being sanctioned and left without enough to live on.

"We are going to be known as a food bank generation," he added. "This poverty has no prejudice. It’s like they’re geared up to stop people from receiving the benefits. This is the kind of thing that drives people to homelessness, and to suicide."

Shadow work and pensions secretary Margaret Greenwood said it was "completely wrong" that people could be "left on the edge of destitution by sanctions or deductions for debts and overpayments".

Accusing ministers of being "in denial" about their impact on people’s health and wellbeing, she added: “Universal credit is clearly failing. [It] was meant to lift people out of poverty, but instead it is acting as a vehicle for cuts. No one can live for a month on five pounds. It’s no wonder food bank use and poverty is soaring."

It comes following warnings that more universal credit claimants would face cuts to their benefits as DWP caseworkers are handed bigger workloads to reduce costs.

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Figures published in a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) earlier this year showed the caseload for work coaches will rise from around 130 to more than 280 by 2024-25​, which campaigners warned would lead to more claimants being placed on sanctions.

A DWP spokesperson said: “We can’t look into this case without more details, so unable to say whether or not they receive any other income or benefits. We continue to pay the housing, disability and child support elements of universal credit even when someone is sanctioned.

“Sanctions are only ever used as a last resort when someone fails to fulfil their benefit commitments, and they affect fewer than 3 per cent of all universal credit claimants.”

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