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Charities urge Government to halt benefit sanctions during pandemic

The End Benefits Sanctions campaign is led by charity Rethink Mental Illness and supported by 18 other organisations
EPA/Andy Rain

Charities have urged the Government to halt benefit sanctions for the remainder of the Covid-19 pandemic amid concerns vulnerable people are living in fear of having their Universal Credit cut during lockdown. 

The End Benefits Sanctions campaign is led by charity Rethink Mental Illness and supported by 18 other organisations including Mind, The Child Poverty Action Group and the Disability Benefits Consortium. 

The groups are calling for the Department for Work and Pensions to issue a six-month suspension of sanctions and conditions attached to benefits. 

Kelly, 20, who has a diagnosis of borderline personality disorder and claims Universal Credit, said navigating the benefits process had affected her mental health. 

“It’s really hard to find work because of the pandemic and I’ve found the process to claim Universal Credit more confusing, difficult and scarier than it needs to be. It has a massive impact on my mental health at a time when I’m already struggling,” she told Rethink Mental Illness. 

A DWP spokesperson said: “We understand this is a challenging time and we want to reassure people that claimant commitments will remain reflective of public health advice, a person’s local jobs market and their personal circumstances.”

Rethink Mental Illness said rising unemployment combined with a flatlining economy is making life harder for those experiencing mental health issues.

The charity added people shouldn’t have to “jump through hoops” to receive benefits during a pandemic. 

The Government reintroduced sanctions at the start of July after a three-month pause at the height of the crisis. 

Charities claim these sanctions were extended by the Department for Work and Pensions on November 2 as England entered a new lockdown. A safeguard was removed meaning sick or disabled people could have benefits cut if they miss a telephone assessment.

Kelly said the thought of being sanctioned terrified her: “The thought that I could be sanctioned for one missed call terrifies me. I missed a call from the DWP about a week ago and it made me feel anxious for the entire day.”

Mark Winstanley, chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said ministers needed to carry on offering support now many were struggling with their mental health. 

“The Government acted quickly to do the right thing and suspend sanctions at the outset of the pandemic, and there’s no appetite from any political quarter to punish people who will struggle to find work in the current climate of cuts and uncertainty,” he said.  

“A pause in sanctions would be a welcome move to provide greater clarity and reassurance to people supported by benefits.” 

One person with several disabilities faced more than £1,200 in Universal Credit sanctions and was left without money to pay bills or buy food, the Big issue reported in October. 

Rethink Mental Illness have launched a petition calling on the Government to “take the pressure off” people who need benefits. At the time of writing, it has over 1,500 signatories. 

The charity says there is widespread public support for suspending sanctions during the pandemic, and polling suggests six in ten UK adults back the call for a six-month suspension. 

In addition to the six-month pause, the organisations are asking the Government to improve employment support for people living with mental illness and end sanctions for disabled people for good.   

Winstanley added: “If there is to be a silver lining in the challenges we face at the moment, it could be the opportunity to pause and develop plans which could create a more compassionate social security system, ending sanctions for disabled people such as those living with mental illness”. 

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