Advice agencies say tougher sanctioning on welfare claimants could be unfairly impacting on the poorest in Northampton and placing a massive strain on their services.
The views were aired at a special borough council scrutiny panel meeting aimed at finding ways of mitigating the effects of the Welfare Reform Act.
Five key advice agencies, which deal directly with those undergoing drastic cuts to their benefits, addressed councillors at the Guildhall.
Each, including the town’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau and Community Law Service, detailed how their services were being stretched as a result of the reforms.
Panel member Councillor Joy Capstick (Lab, Talavera) addressed the board saying: “I think you are always going to get these Daily Mail-style headlines of people trying to ‘work the system’.
“But there is growing evidence now to say more and more people are getting behind in their rent through no fault of their own and are struggling to feed their kids.”
Sarah Hayle, advice services manager for Community Law Services Northampton and County, said over the past year waiting lists for its services had gone from ‘a few days’ to between four and five weeks in some circumstances.
The service has seen a drastic rise in those needing legal advice on repossession and eviction matters.
But Ms Hayle felt many were being left out of pocket because they have been unfairly sanctioned by the Department For Work and Pensions.
The stricter measures mean jobseekers have to attend meetings at JobCentres and account more clearly for their efforts to find work.
Those who do not complete a weekly timetable of tasks could find themselves losing out on benefits as a result.
Ms Hayle said: “Sanctions often result in people having no money. It forces people to live on a greatly-reduced income.
“But the biggest problems often occur for inadequate reasons. People who have not been able to attend an appointment with the DWP will automatically trigger a sanction.
“Even if they have already notified them of a valid reason they cannot appeal until an external review is done and this can take up to eight weeks.”
Ms Hayle said that as most benefit claims were dealt with online, many people are missing out on money they are entitled to simply because they cannot access a computer.
She said: “There are real barriers up there for people now.
“Everything is being forced onto the internet, but so many people still don’t have access at home.
“If you are making a benefit claim you need to have a lot of personal information with you, so do you really want to spread all that out on a desk in a library?”
Chief Executive of Northampton’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau, Martin Lord, also said tunfair sanctions were leaving many of its clients struggling with money.
In many cases, he said, client incomes were so low that advisors could not draw up a financial plan that would bring them out of debt.
He said: “I think that sanctions are a really big issue, there seems to be a sanction first, think later attitude.
“It’s all well and good saying that people have the right to challenge the decision is inaccessible, or would cause further delays it doesn’t really help.”
Mr Lord added that he believed there is a direct correlation between the rise in food bank usage and the toughening of sanctions.
“It’s evident that people have been in extremely poor health and run down by prevailing circumstances,” he said.
Mr Lord added that he believed the borough council now needed to carry out a full study into the extent of poverty in Northampton.
At the meeting, councillor Capstick also criticised the location of the town’s Atos branch. Atos, based at Gladstone Road, Dallington, is the firm contracted by the Government to assess whether welfare claimants were eligible for financial assistance.
But councillor Capstick said Northampton’s assessment centre was too hard to access without a car.
She said she had heard of several complaints from people being assessed for work with severe illnesses.
Others had complained of vital information being lost or taken down incorrectly, she said.
The scrutiny panel, which consists of seven borough councillors, will now report its findings back to cabinet in the autumn.
The panel is to make recommendations of how best to help those effected by welfare reforms.