Advertisement - Content continues below
Social Justice

Disabled person handed £1,200 in Universal Credit sanctions during lockdown

The Government suspended benefit sanctions during lockdown, but people with pre-existing sanctions continued to have money taken from them. It plunged Clara, who has a slipped disc and chronic pain issues, into poverty.

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. 

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.

Advertisement - Content continues below
Advertisement - Content continues below

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”.

Subscribe to The Big Issue

From just £3 per week

Take a print or digital subscription to The Big Issue and provide a critical lifeline to our work. With each subscription we invest every penny back into supporting the network of sellers across the UK. A subscription also means you'll never miss the weekly editions of an award-winning publication, with each issue featuring the leading voices on life, culture, politics and social activism.

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.

Stop Mass Homelessness

Help us stop mass homelessness

Unless we act, the UK is facing a homelessness crisis 
this autumn.

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.

Get in touch to tell your story or offer ideas to support those in need by emailing rora@bigissue.com.

Advertisement - Content continues below

Support your local vendor

Give your vendor a hand up and buy the magazine. Big Issue vendors are some of the most vulnerable members of our society. But, at the same time, they are micro-entrepreneurs. By supporting their business, you can help them overcome homelessness, financial instability and other social disadvantages that hold them back.

Recommended for you

Read All
Demand for energy bills advice soars by 9,000% amid gas crisis
Social Justice

Demand for energy bills advice soars by 9,000% amid gas crisis

‘They call us snowflakes but we’re taking action’: Children speak out in landmark survey
Social Justice

‘They call us snowflakes but we’re taking action’: Children speak out in landmark survey

Which children's charities are fighting poverty in the UK?
Social Justice

Which children's charities are fighting poverty in the UK?

Universal credit cut shows ‘the poorest are penalised every time’
Social Justice

Universal credit cut shows ‘the poorest are penalised every time’

Most Popular

Read All
More than 70 MPs back motion to stop ministers lying in parliament
1.

More than 70 MPs back motion to stop ministers lying in parliament

The Big Issue vendor who became London’s happiest bus driver is now bringing drinking water to Africa
2.

The Big Issue vendor who became London’s happiest bus driver is now bringing drinking water to Africa

Climate crisis laid bare as new map illustrates threat of rising sea levels
3.

Climate crisis laid bare as new map illustrates threat of rising sea levels

Shaun Ryder: 'It will always be one rule for them and another rule for us'
4.

Shaun Ryder: 'It will always be one rule for them and another rule for us'