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‘Devastating’ benefit sanctions force crisis, hunger and despair, says Salford report

Benefit sanctions are plunging the poor and desperate into crisis in Salford, a new report on Universal Credit claims.

The joint study by Salford City Council, Salford’s Citizen’s Advice Bureux and the city’s Community and Volunteer Service found that severe sanctions mean young people are abandoning benefit claims and relying on family and friends to bail them out.

62 percent of referrals to Salford Central food bank were made by people who had had their benefits stopped, the Trussell Trust added.

“People on benefits are already struggling to afford food, heating and essential costs,” said City Mayor Paul Dennett.

“They can’t save so they have no financial safety net.

“They live in dread of being sanctioned which isn’t the right frame of mind for job hunting, volunteering or going back into education.”

While the number of sanctions has gone down nationally, the rate of people being sanctioned in Eccles and Worsley Jobcentres has actually increased since the last report in 2014.

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Benefits can be stopped for a number of reasons, for example if you are deemed by JobCentre staff not to be trying hard enough to get a job, or not applying for enough jobs, or turning up late for JobCentre appointments.

Horror tales are everywhere of the Kafka-esque nature of benefit sanctions.

One woman told of having her benefits stopped for a month after attending a job interview that overran, making her 9 minutes late for a JobCentre appointment.

Instead of encouraging people into jobs, unfair sanctions are driving people to despair as well as increasing the strain on already over-subscribed voluntary organisations, the report finds.

“We are particularly concerned about young people who don’t have strong literacy or IT skills or who have unsettled or chaotic home lives with no access to computers,” said Dennett.

“They need intensive help from support agencies which are struggling to cope with the demand and are often sanctioned for not trying hard enough to find work, often at pay rates below the government’s new minimum wage of £7.20 because they’re under 25.

“Some then have to borrow from relatives just to eat until the sanction is lifted, putting a strain on stretched household budgets or drop their benefit claim altogether and survive hand to mouth which runs the risk of them turning to crime to survive.”

The means-tested Universal Credit was forced through by then-Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan-Smith, who would resign in March 2016 over “indefensible” cuts to disability benefits.

Duncan-Smith said at the time he thought cuts to the personal independence payment, or PIP (the replacement for the Disability Living Allowance), were driven by Chancellor George Osborne’s politics, rather than economics.

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As many as 10% of benefit claimants in Salford have faced sanctions.

The report also confirmed worrying stories of people being sanctioned multiple times instead of tackling the underlying problem: researchers were told about one man who is deaf and has learning difficulties who has been sanctioned five times for being unable to complete work search diary sheets and cope with appointments.

“If they are sanctioned and lose their benefits they’re immediately in crisis – turning to food banks, voluntary agencies and public sector organisations for help with food and keeping a roof over their heads,” said Dennett.

It’s expected the findings of the Salford Task Force report will be used to join national campaigns for an independent enquiry into benefit sanctions.

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Tom is SalfordOnline.com's News Editor and community co-ordinator.