The number of people claiming unemployment benefit in North Staffordshire has shot up by more than 5,000 in just one month.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics show the Covid-19 lockdown has forced thousands of people in the area out of work.
In Stoke-on-Trent, the claimant count soared from 7,320 in March to 10,555 in April, an increase of 3,235, or 44 per cent. This means that 6.6 per cent of working age adults in the city are now claiming unemployment benefits.
While the number of claimants had been ticking up in the months before, the impact of coronavirus has been huge and immediate. And experts fear the worst is yet to come, as thousands more may lose their jobs once the Government-funded furlough scheme comes to an end.
Newcastle’s claimant count increased from 1,980 to 3,270 in April, while the Staffordshire Moorlands’ figure almost doubled, from 920 to 1,760.
The claimant count is a combination of claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and claimants of Universal Credit (UC) who fall within the UC ‘searching for work’ conditionality.
Simon Harris, chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent CAB, says the UC system is coping with the surge in claims – but he sees greater problems on the horizon.
He said: “The really big area of work we’ve seen recently has been in connection with Universal Credit. There has been a huge increase in the number of people claiming UC, either because they’ve become newly unemployed, or they have been furloughed and they haven’t been able to manage on the reduced income.
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“In our experience, a lot of people who have been furloughed were already on low income, and if that gets reduced to 80 per cent, they cannot live on it. It’s even worse if a couple have both been furloughed.
“But one thing that’s been quite positive is that the UC system is coping quite well with this increase in demand, at least in the short term. This is because a lot of the earlier issues have been addressed. It would have been a nightmare if this crisis had happened while all those problems were still there.
“And the Government has thrown resources at UC to make sure the system can cope with the increased demand. I don’t know how sustainable that will be in the longer term.
“It’s likely that we’ll see an even bigger wave of redundancies once the Government ends the job retention scheme.”
Staffordshire-based digger giant JCB recently announced it would be axing 950 jobs and 500 agency staff as a result of plummeting global demand for its machines, which is likely to have a big impact locally.
Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s Jobs, Enterprise and Training team has offered support to more than 200 unemployed people since the lockdown started.
City council leader Abi Brown said: “We’ve got a range of things we can do to help people who have been made redundant during this crisis, including our JET team. They can help people put together a CV and give tips on interview techniques and things like that.
“We are also working with partners across the West Midlands on a job matching scheme, which directs people towards sectors of the economy which are growing at the moment. While many businesses are struggling now, there are some which are seeing increased demand.”
Before the Covid-19 crisis hit, council leaders pointed to figures which showed that Stoke-on-Trent had the fastest jobs growth in the country.
Mrs Brown hopes the city can return to that sort of growth once the pandemic is over.
She added: “I think one of the strengths of Stoke-on-Trent, which some people might have thought as a weakness, is that our economy is not dominated by any one single sector. While some areas, such as leisure and tourism, have obviously been hit hard, there could be growth in other sectors, such as digital.”
Across the country, the number of people claiming unemployment benefit has increased from 1.3 million in March to 2.1 million in April.
The national Turn2Us charity is urging the Government to expand its employee and self-employed income protection schemes to help those currently ineligible.
It is also calling for changes to Universal Credit, such as ending the five-week wait for the first payment, increasing the work allowance and eliminating policies such as the two child limit.
Thomas Lawson, chief executive at Turn2us, said: “This sudden increase in unemployment as a result of coronavirus is, while not surprising, a significant cause for concern.
“There were already 14 million of us living in poverty before the pandemic and this is only going to get worse as more and more people lose their incomes and struggle to get by.
“This is why it’s so important that the Government responds with practical solutions that reach everyone and prevent people from slipping through the net – living with no source of income.”
Employment minister Mims Davies said: “The impact of this global health emergency is now starting to show – and we’re doing everything we can to protect jobs and livelihoods.
“What some of these statistics do highlight is that, heading into the pandemic, we had built strong foundations in our economy, which will be crucial as we gradually move forward as the lockdown eases and look to bounce back.”
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