In March this year Clara, who has several disabilities, met her work coach for an appointment at the job centre. By August she was facing more than £1,200 in Universal Credit sanctions and left without money to pay bills or buy food.
Campaigners say it is people like Clara who could be pushed into destitution by the Universal Credit system and want the Government to make permanent the emergency £20 increase brought in at the start of the pandemic as well as increasing legacy benefits to protect people from poverty.
But Chancellor Rishi Sunak still won’t budge despite repeated calls to keep the uplift beyond April 2021, and experts say sanctions could push more people into hardship during the pandemic.
When Clara visited the job centre, her work coach asked her to commit to a claimant agreement that wasn’t possible with her health conditions. Within months she had dropped into poverty, unable to work the jobs she was being asked to apply for and docked Universal Credit payments as a result.
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When the Chancellor increased Universal Credit £20pw, he failed to increase legacy benefits the same amount, disproportionately hurting vulnerable groups like the disabled.
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Clara, not the individual’s real name, spoke with The Big Issue on the condition of anonymity.
A claimant agreement lays out the responsibilities a person has agreed to in return for Universal Credit, usually requiring that they do everything within their power to get a job.
But because Clara suffers from a slipped disc, diabetes, arthritis and other issues that cause chronic pain, her options are limited. She provided medical evidence to support her argument but her work coach wanted her to go for a job interview in a physical role at a supermarket.
When Clara didn’t go for the interview, she had £82 taken off her Universal Credit payment. Shortly after, the Government suspended sanctions when the country locked down, but pre-existing sanctions continued to function as normal.
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions told The Big Issue: “We don’t want to sanction anyone and no one will be sanctioned unless they fail to meet the agreed conditions of their claimant commitment without good reason.”
Clara was “very upset” when she was sanctioned, she said. “I had the doctor’s certificate, yet they were forcing me to go to work, which was not comfortable for me.”
Mental health struggles after being sanctioned compounded the problem, and she said she found it “hard to carry on”.
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Her sanction increased to £291 in April and continued to increase every month. By August, she’d had £1,245 taken off her income during the Covid-19 crisis, plunging her into poverty and forcing her to rely on family to support her with bills and food.
Clara turned to anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) for help as her income continued to shrink. A Z2K caseworker submitted a challenge to the decision to sanction her, called a mandatory reconsideration, but the DWP did not respond for 18 weeks.
When employment minister Mims Davies was asked about the effect of sanctions on people during lockdown, she said people who were sanctioned before the pandemic could continue to apply for hardship payments and were “no worse off as a result of the pandemic”.
But it took until the middle of August, when the caseworker was forced to submit a complaint, that the DWP responded to Clara’s plight. Despite being ignored for 18 weeks, it took three days for the DWP to respond to the complaint.
She received £1,008 in backdated payments, meaning the final sanction total was £237. But it took five months of distress and poverty for the mistake to be fixed and Clara now believes the sanctions system “gives more stress to people for no reason”.
For now, the DWP has agreed she does not need to look for a job.
Nearly 36,300 people were still having Universal Credit sanctions deducted from the payments a month into lockdown, according to Government figures.
Now Z2K and fellow anti-poverty campaigners want a serious overhaul to the Universal Credit system.
The charity’s CEO Anela Anwar said: “Despite the Government pausing new sanctions and conditionality during lockdown, tens of thousands of people continued to have large amounts of income cruelly taken away during the pandemic.
“For ministers to suggest ‘claimants who were sanctioned before Covid-19 […] are no worse off as a result of the pandemic’ completely ignores that they have still had to cope with all the extra costs of Covid-19, while receiving less than the barest minimum income Parliament says they need to survive.
“Sanctions are a punitive regime. They simply don’t work and continue to cause huge financial and physical harm to thousands of people. They must be scrapped.”
The name of Z2K’s client has been changed to protect their identity, at their request. When approached by The Big Issue for comment, the DWP was provided with all the details of the case which Clara was happy to share publicly along with the details of the charity.
The DWP press office asked for the client’s full name, date of birth and national insurance number, private information which The Big Issue did not have and did not intend to supply, in keeping with their request for confidentiality.
A DWP spokesperson said: “The Big Issue refused to provide full details of this case so we are unable to comment on or verify these details.
“We don’t want to sanction anyone and no one will be sanctioned unless they fail to meet the agreed conditions of their claimant commitment without good reason.
“Claimant commitments are agreed between claimants and their work coaches, taking into account their circumstances and capability.”
The Big Issue is fighting the unemployment crisis through the Ride Out Recession Alliance, bringing together the most innovative ideas and experts to help keep people in work and in their homes during the recession.
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