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.
📢 People experiencing mental illness shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to receive benefits they need during a pandemic.
— Rethink Mental Illness (@Rethink_) November 19, 2020
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.
Our Ride Out Recession Alliance is about developing and implementing practical solutions to prevent families losing their homes, and help people remain in employment. Find out how you can get involved.https://t.co/WMLpLMVRSr
— The Big Issue (@BigIssue) November 24, 2020
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”.
Big Issue vendors need your help now more than ever. More than 1,000 vendors are out of work because of the second lockdown in England. They can’t sell the magazine and they can’t rely on the income they need.
The Big Issue is helping our vendors with supermarket vouchers and gift payments but we need your help to do that.
Please buy this week’s magazine from the online shop or take out a subscription to make sure we can continue to support our vendors over this difficult period. You can even link your subscription to your local vendor with our new online map.
Thank you all so much for your ongoing support.