SPIRALLING numbers of Barnsley residents relying on unemployment-related benefits are now at their highest than at any time since the days of pit closures in the 1990s - and leaders in the town have warned a tough winter is ahead due to increasing job losses as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Latest figures - obtained by the Chronicle from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) this week - show a total of 25,880 claimed Universal Credit last month, a rise from September’s 25,428.

It’s expected next month’s figure - blamed on the government’s second lockdown period - will surpass the 26,000 barrier for the first time and eclipse the early 90s when unemployment was at an all-time high following pit closures.

Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis told the Chronicle: “It is deeply concerning to see the spike in Universal Credit claimants across Barnsley, with further increases projected as we move through winter.

“Covid-19 has hit our area hard, we’ve a disproportionate number of cases and hospitalisations and our economy has been harshly exposed.

“The numbers of people we see claiming unemployment-related benefits today is now higher than at any time since the dark days of post-pit closure unemployment in the 1990s.

“People are hurting and as we head into Christmas, a time when for many, finances are already stretched to almost breaking point, the addition of this pandemic’s uncertainty will be an enormous burden.

“I’ll be working around the clock to ensure that people in Barnsley get the financial support they need to get through this crisis.”

When the coronavirus pandemic began in March, Barnsley’s claimants hovered around the 22,000 mark but have climbed considerably since.

When compared to August last year, the number of claimants has rocketed by 84 per cent across all age groups, with the 18 to 24-year-old bracket being the worst-hit with a 116 per cent increase.

It is expected the pandemic will have increased the level of poverty in Barnsley, leading a council-run task force to be set up to reach out to more at-risk people in the coming weeks.

Barnsley East MP Stephanie Peacock, one of the worst-hit areas in the town for unemployment and poverty, said:

“Through no fault of their own, thousands of working families have been pushed into poverty during this pandemic - I am deeply concerned by the increase in Universal Credit claimants here in Barnsley.

“Too many people are slipping through the cracks of the government’s economic support package, which fails to help the businesses and households that need it the most.

“I will continue to press the government to provide proper financial assistance to those struggling here in Barnsley.”

A DWP spokesperson added: “Universal Credit is proving to be a vital safety net - it’s stood up to the toughest of tests and supported people through the pandemic in what’s been their time of need.

“But this remains a challenging time for families across the country and figures show the impact the virus is having.

“We’re doubling the number of work coaches across our job centres with 4,500 already taking up posts, the £2bn ‘Kickstart’ scheme is under way with the first recruits starting last week.”