Hundreds of Universal Credit claimants in Calderdale have seen their payments stopped or cut since the scheme started.
Experts have warned it means more people are having to use food banks, are being pushed into debt, and are forced to “struggle against the tide of poverty”.
The controversial six-in-one benefit payment system, a flagship policy for the Conservative government, replaced Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA), Income Support, Housing Benefit, Child Tax Credit, Working Tax Credit and Employment and Support Allowance.
It was designed to simplify the benefits system, cut administrative costs and encourage more people into full-time work.
In Calderdale 975 people have seen their payments stopped or reduced at least once since the scheme rolled out, according to official figures as of October 2018.
These are known as “sanctions”, and happen when a person is judged to have failed to meet the terms of their Universal Credit commitment.
It means their payment is reduced or stopped, depending on the severity of the sanction.
The lowest level sanctions are those where a person has failed to attend a work-focused interview and the highest level sanctions – for example refusing a job offer – last for up to three months.
People who are sanctioned for the second or third time can see their payments halted or reduced for additional weeks as a penalty.
Critics have blasted the findings, and say that sanctions are casting the most vulnerable people into “destitution”.
The news follows the admission last month by Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd that the Universal Credit rollout has been linked to rising food bank usage.
Answering a ministerial question in the House of Commons, Ms Rudd said: “It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial rollout of Universal Credit, and the main issue that led to an increase in food bank use could have been the fact that people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.”
The scheme – introduced in 2013 – was supposed to be fully-rolled out by 2017, but management failures, IT blunders and design faults mean it has already fallen at least six years behind schedule.
The system is now not expected to be fully operational until December 2023.
Emma Revie, chief executive at the Trussell Trust, said: “There is a strong link between people having their benefit payments stopped and an increase in referrals to food banks.
“Our evidence shows that sanctions can be counter-productive, pushing people further from work – for example by pushing households into debt, using their resources instead to struggle against the tide of poverty.
“We want to see a true ‘yellow card’ system, which sees someone receiving a warning first, instead of getting money stopped, to try and engage someone in a constructive dialogue without the threat of financial penalty.
“Poverty acts like a current sweeping people away and leaving them without enough money for the basics.
“But this isn’t inevitable. We know what things will anchor people against those tides and reduce the need for food banks; a benefits system that provides sufficient money and support to anyone who needs its help, work that is secure and pays fairly and emergency support from local authorities that fills the gaps when someone is hit by something unexpected.”
Matt Geer, campaigns manager at poverty charity Turn2Us, said: “Sanctions are routinely linked to causing poverty, homelessness and destitution as well as increase demand on foodbanks.
“We routinely hear from people who are on Universal Credit and have been affected by sanctions.
“These people are desperately looking for clarity on what their rights are and searching for help to make ends meet rather than trying to ‘cheat the system’.
“They need support, rather than being penalised, from the very system that should be there to help them.
“The DWP have the ability to encourage more people into work but to do so, we would recommend they focus on making work pay a real living wage, rather than exercising punitive measures.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “The latest statistics show that fewer than 3% of Universal Credit claimants have a sanction.
“Sanctions are only used when people don’t fulfil their agreed commitments to look for work.”