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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

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Carlisle advice centre's benefits workload doubles in year

A growing number of Cumbrians are being left penniless as their benefits are cut as part of a crackdown on welfare spending.

Pete Moran photo
Pete Moran

Workers at Cumbria Law Centre in Carlisle say that between 100 and 120 people a month are turning to them for help having had their benefits stopped by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Many with mental or emotional problems are simply unable to cope with the bureaucracy involved in proving that they are trying hard enough to get jobs, says Pete Moran, who manages the Cumbria Law Centre in Carlisle.

In the last financial year, he says, the centre has helped 1,400 whose benefits were “sanctioned”, or cut. That’s double the number left without benefits in the previous year.

Mr Moran described how one Carlisle woman with learning difficulties recently had her benefits axed for the third time.

He said: “This lady had found it pretty much impossible to negotiate over the phone with the DWP in the technical language that they use. Applying for Job Seeker’s Allowance involves filling in a 52 page form which can be difficult for people who have poor literacy skills.”

People whose benefits have been slashed are accounting for an ever increasing part of the centre’s workload.

The charity helps by mounting appeals against sanctions on benefits such as Job Seeker’s and Employment Support Allowance, given to those deemed unfit to work because of health problems.

Eligibility for that benefit depends on an assessment by Atos.

But, said Mr Moran, many claimants with mental health issues are being assessed as fit for work regardless of them being unable to hold down a job.

As well as offering advice, and helping with the forms, Law Centre staff also do their best to get sanctioned claimants emergency food parcels and funds to tide them over while their case is reconsidered – which can take months.

“Our triage worker is a highly competent and technical person and when a client in this situation comes through the door it can often take three or four appointments to get them to the stage of beginning their appeal.

“Imagine how hard it is for clients with complex mental health and emotional needs.

“We know that Job Centre staff are making referrals to the foodbank, as we do and we help people get scraps of money from a charitable scheme, but it’s just sticking plaster stuff. It’s heartbreaking.”

He added that only a tiny percentage of benefits claims are fraudulent.

Captain Mark Sellers, who oversees the Salvation Army Foodbank operation in Carlisle, said around 75 food parcels are being handed out in Carlisle every week.

Last September, chancellor George Osborne announced a nationwide scheme to force 200,000 long-term unemployed benefit claimants to either undertake community work, attend a job centre every day or go on an intensive programme to tackle the underlying reasons for their failure to find work.

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