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UNIVERSAL CREDIT: Claimants need ‘more empathy’ says councillor

UNIVERSAL CREDIT: Claimants need ‘more empathy’ says councillor

Image: LDRS

Universal Credit (UC) claimants should be shown “more empathy” before a decision is taken to cut or freeze their benefits, a Conservative councillor has said.

People who claim UC can be subject to sanctions if it’s decided they have failed to prove that they’re looking for work, or haven’t tried to increase their earnings if they’re already in work.

The system has been criticised at a national level for being overly harsh and ineffective at incentivising work.

The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) said it only used sanctions as an “absolute last resort” and that no claimant in West Yorkshire had been subject to them since the start of the Covid pandemic last March.

But speaking a scrutiny meeting on Thursday, Leeds councillor Trish Smith, who represents the Pudsey ward, said she was concerned some people were being unfairly punished.

Coun Smith said: “If you’ve no income, little income or your income changes it can push you into an awful spiral of debt, mental health and everything else.

“We’ve talked around sanctions. I’ve had a couple of people come to me who’ve been sanctioned because they haven’t responded to a letter or telephone call.

“I understand people need to engage but surely we need to find out why they’ve not responded.

“Has the initial contact gone to the wrong address?

“I know the volumes of work you (DWP) are pushing out are phenomenal and there will always be someone who slips through the net, but I just think we need to have a little bit more empathy sometimes.”

The number of people claiming Universal Credit across Leeds has risen by 60 per cent since 2019.

The government’s own website about the benefit explains that people on UC have to sign a ‘claimant commitment’ form, which requires them to show how they are either looking for work or trying to boost their income if they’re in a low-paid job.

Claimants are also required to attend “review meetings” in some cases.

The website says: “If you fail to do what you have agreed in your claimant commitment without good reason, your Universal Credit payments may be reduced for a set period. This is known as a sanction.”

But DWP representative Simon Betts told the scrutiny meeting: “I really don’t want people to get hung up about sanctions because we only apply them in a very, very, very, very, very small number of cases and that would only be where the customer hasn’t complied with their claim commitment.

“Every case goes up to managers first of all to be reviewed and to see if it’s appropriate.

“We would only refer anyone for a possible sanction if it was absolutely necessary.”

Words: David Spereall, Local Democracy Reporter

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