Number of Universal Credit claimants relying on hardship payments soars
EXCLUSIVE: The number of people needing emergency loans is 80% higher than in 2019 due to soaring benefit sanctions
The number of people forced to claim hardship payments to cope with Universal Credit sanctions has rocketed as the cost of living crisis deepens, openDemocracy can reveal.
Benefit claimants can be sanctioned – which means their Universal Credit (UC) payments are reduced – for missing job centre appointments or not meeting the job-hunting demands set out by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
These sanctions are increasingly leaving people unable to afford rent, heating, food or hygiene needs, forcing many to apply for a discretionary hardship payment from the DWP.
A total of 74,200 hardship payments were made in the first five months of 2022, compared to 40,400 in the first five months of 2019 – an increase of more than 80%.
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In May of this year alone, 17,500 people received new hardship payments – up from 12,100 in February.
The highest number of hardship payments made in any month in 2019 was 9,400.
The shocking figures exposed by openDemocracy have led to demands for the government to “urgently reconsider the cruel sanctions policy”.
The news comes days after chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng announced measures that could see 120,000 more people on UC threatened with having their benefits reduced unless they take steps to seek more work.
Kwarteng announced the plans in his mini-budget last week, in which he also scrapped the 45% income tax rate for those earning more than £150,000. The plans have come under fire for benefiting only the richest in society.
More sanctions, more hardship payments
Hardship payments have exploded in recent months in response to soaring numbers of UC sanctions, after the DWP reimposed conditions on benefit claimants that were suspended during COVID lockdowns and introduced new schemes such as Way to Work, which have also tightened the rules for unemployed claimants.
The number of sanctions per month rose from around 1,000 in spring 2021 to more than 58,500 this March, before slipping back in April.
Sanctions, which can last anything from a week up to six months in rare cases, affected 6% of UC claimants subject to conditionality in April this year – twice the rate seen before the pandemic.
Claimants must pay back hardship payments – adding to their existing debt while being punitively sanctioned
A person who has been sanctioned can apply for a hardship payment worth roughly 60% of the amount they have had docked in the past month. This must be repaid once the sanction ends, including by automatic deductions from subsequent UC payments.
“Hardship payments are discretionary, and have a stringent set of criteria that are difficult for a claimant to meet – especially if they’re unable to access advice,” said Ella Abraham, policy and campaigns officer for anti-poverty charity Z2K. “This forces the use of food banks, fuel banks and other discretionary charitable support.”
People applying for hardship payments are expected to have looked for other sources of financial help – such as asking family or friends for money or asking for extra hours at work – and to have stopped spending on ‘non-essentials’, such as entertainment or leisure activities.
Abraham added: “It is also a loan, so the claimant will have to pay that sum back, only adding to their existing debt while being punitively sanctioned.
“With benefit rates already left behind by inflation, tens of thousands of people are being left without the money they need to put food on the table and to heat their home amid this cost of living crisis.”
Of the applications made so far this year for hardship payments, 90% have been successful.
“Ministers need to urgently reconsider the cruel sanctions policy,” said Abraham.
openDemocracy spoke to two people on UC who have received hardship payments after being sanctioned, to understand what such an experience is really like.
Natasja: stressed, sick and unfairly sanctioned
Natasja Vingerhoets, who lives in Stroud in Gloucestershire, was receiving UC for childcare support when she left her job in 2017. Natasja had a child in an abusive relationship and although she had initially taken maternity leave, she found her anxiety when away from her children was too high for her to return to work.
Two years later, she left her partner and moved into a refuge. Then came the pandemic and the suspension of the DWP’s job-hunting requirements.
“It wasn't until November last year that they were like, ‘well, you need to get back into work now’,” she told openDemocracy. “In November, I was quite enthusiastic. I was looking forward to getting back into work and back into normal life.”
She was placed on the DWP’s Restart scheme, which focuses on long-term unemployed claimants. A combination of pressure from both the job centre and her own enthusiasm to return to work led her to sign up for more courses than she could keep up with. Matters reached a head at the end of last year.
“My ex-partner killed himself in 2021. It wasn't until the [Christmas] holidays that it sort of came back. I just needed some time to deal with it. I mentioned that quite a few times; every time I had an appointment at the job centre, I told [the work coach] it's too much. I've got undiagnosed ADHD as well, so the whole journal thing, it's too much for me right now. She pretty much just ignored it.
“At some point, I just couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't do the appointments. I asked for a sick note. Last time I had a sick note, you didn't have to go in for appointments. Nobody ever told me it had changed. So I thought I didn't have to go in for my appointment. I missed that appointment.”
Last time I had a sick note, you didn't have to go to appointments. Nobody told me it had changed
She mentioned the sick note in her DWP online journal, which is the usual way claimants communicate with the job centre outside of in-person appointments.
“I thought that would automatically cancel the appointment. But I guess not, and I got sanctioned for that. I didn't really notice until it was my next pay date.”
She was docked nearly £520 in benefits over two months. The job centre did not tell her that she could subsequently apply for a hardship payment – she discovered that by accident online. While waiting for her hardship payment application to be assessed, Natasja had to rely on parcels from her local food bank.
“It’s the stress as well. And it's the ADHD – there's this thing called ‘waiting mode’ [a phenomenon reported by some people with ADHD who find themselves almost frozen in anticipation of an event]. It’s basically every day I was just sat there, refreshing my journal, waiting for them to ring me or [send] a message.
“When they did finally ring me, I missed the phone call. So I instantly put it in my journal as soon as I noticed, like ‘can you ring me back’, but it took another week. I was literally just sat there, desperate not to miss anything again.”
Last month, Natasja won her appeal against her sanction, with the docked money repaid in full. Her hardship payment is being repaid in instalments, with around £10 deducted from her UC payment each month.
Paul: ‘Paying it back is worse than the sanction’
Paul Taylor, from Roehampton in London, was sanctioned after missing a job centre appointment in February – which he knew nothing about.
“I didn’t know about it until June,” he told openDemocracy while waiting to have breakfast at a food bank. “I went to the job centre and they said, you’ve been sanctioned for not turning up to an interview on 6 February. And I’m like, well, how am I supposed to know that?”
Every day I was just sat there, refreshing my journal, waiting for them to ring me or [send] a message
Paul doesn’t have a computer or a phone at home and couldn’t find his login details to access his online journal. He recently came off antidepressants after three years, and has physical and mental health issues, but he doesn’t receive a disability benefit.
Paul received one hardship payment and was told he could apply for another, but is reluctant to do so because of having to repay it through deductions from his UC payments. “I don't want it. I can't cope with the hassle. Paying it back is worse than the sanction.”
A DWP spokesperson said: “People are only sanctioned if they fail, without good reason, to meet the conditions to which they agreed. Sanctions can often quickly be resolved by re-engaging with the Jobcentre and attending the next appointment.
“Hardship payments are available as a safeguard to claimants who demonstrate that they cannot meet their immediate and most essential needs as a result of their sanction.”
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