Covid pandemic adding to poverty challenges in Leeds amid 'unprecedented' Universal Credit claims rise
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That's the assessment to be delivered to members of the council's Environment, Housing and Environment Scrutiny Board when it meets this week to examine work being undertaken to reduce poverty and improve access to affordable financial services.
A report by council officers notes that an estimated 174,000 people in Leeds were living in relative poverty even before the pandemic, with local research from 2018 finding households were less resilient and worse prepared for an external financial shock or crisis than in 2004.
It says the welfare system has been crucial to the national response to the pandemic but has been under "extraordinary pressure from an unprecedented wave of applications" for Universal Credit (UC).
There are now 70,127 people in Leeds claiming UC, which the report says is a 60 per cent increase compared to 2019.
An average of 600 claims were registered in the city each week prior to last March, but this has increased "significantly" and peaked at more than 6,800 during April.
The report also notes emerging evidence from advice organisations who say interventions such as the furlough scheme, extra time for loan or mortgage repayments and uplifts in benefits have been "a vital support for low income families on the brink". There are, however, major concerns about what happens when these temporary schemes end.
It says: "Covid-19 has put further pressures on low income households and the most vulnerable in our society, and has also pushed many more households into financial uncertainty, hardship, to seek support and advice and to claim benefits."
Pointing to the partnership approach being taken to tackle poverty in Leeds, it says this has helped to mitigate some of the impact of the pandemic and will be "vital for the city in terms of support and recovery as the situation is develops".
On UC itself, the report says the £20 weekly uplift - currently due to end in April - and the suspension of deductions from benefits have been welcomed along with the way the Department for Work and Pension has been able to process large volumes of claims.
But it says there are still many underlying problems with the welfare system, including the UC debt management system being "extremely difficult to navigate both for claimants and advisers".
The report adds: "There are many issues and concerns relating to the process of claiming UC, that have been raised by partners since the roll out of UC first began in Leeds in 2018.
"A lack of access to digital resources for more vulnerable clients is one such issue that predates the pandemic, but is arguably now exacerbated due to limited public access points (i.e. Community Hubs, Libraries and Job Centres) caused by Covid-19 related restrictions."
The full report will be considered when the scrutiny board holds its next virtual meeting on Thursday January 14 at 10.30am.