The areas of Suffolk worst hit by the Covid-19 jobs crisis, according to latest Universal Credit statistics
The number of people claiming Universal Credit (UC) while in employment has increased in all areas of Suffolk since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the latest figures.
The BBC's Shared Data Unit analysed statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, comparing the number of in-work UC claimants in February 2020 - before any Covid-19 restrictions were imposed - with October 2020, months after the virus first hit the UK.
Experts said many UC claims since the start of the pandemic were from furloughed workers, those in low-wage jobs or on zero-hours contracts, drawing the benefit to top up incomes.
The analysis showed the largest increases in employed people claiming the benefit in the county were in East Suffolk and Ipswich.
In East Suffolk, the number of claims from those in work over the eight months rose by five percentage points - in February, the proportion of people claiming UC in employment was 35 per cent, compared to 40 per cent in October.
Meanwhile these types of claims went up by four percentage points from February to October in Ipswich - from 39 per cent to 43 per cent.
And Babergh, Mid Suffolk and West Suffolk all saw a percentage point increase of three per cent over that time - from 40 per cent to 43 per cent in Babergh and Mid Suffolk, and from 43 per cent to 46 per cent in West Suffolk.
That means that West Suffolk had the highest proportion of UC claims from people in employment in the county in October 2020.
Minesh Patel, principal policy manager at Citizens Advice UK, said at the start of the pandemic, the organisation saw a 'huge surge' in people seeking advice about UC or employment generally, which mirrored the trend of more people applying for the benefit.
"Seven out of every 10 people coming to us didn’t need support previously, so we had lots of people who weren’t used to the benefits system applying for the first time and needing help with things like eligibility and how much they were entitled to," Mr Patel said.
"Advisors have been supporting a whole range of people including more younger people and more self-employed people, showing the impact this crisis has had.
"As well as that - two-fifths of people we’ve been helping on Universal Credit are in some sort of work, so this might include people who have been furloughed or people on low wages, for example people on zero-hours contracts, who need Universal Credit to top up their income."
The Shared Data Unit's analysis also shows that there were tens of thousands of new UC claimants in the region within the first few months of the pandemic.
The statistics show that, within the Ipswich postcode area - which covers most of Suffolk, including Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds, Felixstowe, Stowmarket and Woodbridge, as well as Diss and Thetford - there were 9,755 new claimants in April 2020, compared with 1,473 in April 2019, and a further 8,513 new claimants in May 2020, up from 1,278 in May 2019.
And of those people, 54 per cent of those who had started claiming in April were still doing so after six months. Of those who were new claimants in May, 59 per cent of them were still claiming after six months.
It was a similar situation in the Norwich postcode area - which covers Beccles and Lowestoft, the Cambridge postcode area - which includes Haverhill and Newmarket, and the Colchester postcode area - which covers Sudbury.
All of those areas saw huge increases in the numbers of new UC claimants in April and May compared to the previous year - of at least 500 per cent in most places.
And similarly, more than half of those who were new claimants at that time were still claiming six months on in all of those locations.
As of November 2020, there were 43,263 UC claimants in the Ipswich postcode area, 25,138 in the Cambridge area, 35,326 in the Colchester area, and 62,944 in the Norwich area.
The analysis comes as the government considers whether the £20 weekly increase in UC introduced at the start of the pandemic should be kept in place beyond 31 March.
Peter Matejic, deputy director for evidence and impact at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which has recently published its yearly UK Poverty report, said the £20 uplift has been a 'lifeline' for people who have receive it.
Mr Matejic said: "We’ve heard so many claimants and recipients of universal credit who have faced extra costs since the start of the pandemic. Some have lost their jobs and are suddenly having to cope on a much lower income.
"It’s just not right to take £1,000 a year away from six million struggling families when we see the jobs market is really tough."
He added that the foundation doesn't think it 'makes economic sense' for the government to withdraw that money as those families will spend the money in a way that will 'help that cycle of growth and recovery'.
"While the health effects of the pandemic will end with vaccination, the economic effects will remain in place," he said.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “Universal Credit has been a lifeline for millions affected by the pandemic and will play a vital role as we build back better to recover our record breaking jobs market.
“Claims still open after six months in 2020 cannot be compared with 2019 as claims not in payment are being left open for longer during the pandemic to ensure people are able to access support quickly should they need it.
“We are committed to supporting the lowest-paid families, which is why we’re spending hundreds of billions to safeguard jobs, boosting welfare support by billions and have introduced the £170m Covid Winter Grant Scheme to help children and families stay warm and well-fed during the coldest months.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is expected to cover the topic of the £20 UC uplift when he sets out his 2021 Budget from 12.30pm today.