NUMBERS of benefit claimants have rocketed to their highest point in more than six months - as the crushing impact of the current cost of living crisis begins to show.

Amid soaring energy bills and costs of fuel, 26,209 people have turned to Universal Credit for support - the highest number since October’s 26,262, according to the new Department for Work and Pensions figures.

That month, it was announced an emergency £20-a-week ‘uplift’ given to claimants during the pandemic would be withdrawn - with calls to reinstate it recently ruled out by ministers.

But with energy regulator Ofgem warning the price cap - that limits how much providers can charge - could reach £2,800 a year in the autumn, it’s expected claimant numbers could reach similar highs this year.

Figures from March also show 38 per cent - 9,790 - of claimants were working while claiming.

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Numbers of claimants rose month-on-month during the pandemic before the town’s 27,095 peak was hit last March.

Further adding to claimants’ struggles is the much-criticised move from older legacy benefits onto Universal Credit, which was due to begin weeks before the pandemic struck.

Around 16,000 people in Barnsley are waiting to transfer to the new system, a process which has been said to cause delays of five weeks.

The roll-out has been continually criticised by Barnsley MPs, after figures of claimants soared by more than 80 per cent as a result of the pandemic.

“The stark reality is that the less disposable income people have in their pockets, the less able they are to support local businesses which in turn creates a vicious cycle of economic downturn,” said Barnsley Central MP Dan Jarvis.

“The Conservatives’ inaction and complacency over the cost-of-living is having a devastating impact.

“We are stuck in a decade-long cycle of low growth and high taxes and that is hitting workers and businesses alike.

“People across Barnsley are genuinely fearful for what the coming weeks and months will bring.

“Those on lower incomes and the most vulnerable in society will be left wondering how they’re going to keep the lights on and put food on the table.

“Food, fuel, energy and travel costs all spiralling out of control.

“Compared to the national average, we have more people struggling to heat their homes, more businesses that are energy intensive, and more people not in the workforce.

“We’re witnessing the biggest fall in living standards since records began.”

Rising fears over the town’s plight have been expressed by MPs, with one in three children now being classed as living in poverty and a quarter receiving free school meals.

Barnsley ranks among the top ten per cent of England’s 333 local authorities based on six indicators of deprivation, but the borough’s Universal Credit claimant count is the lowest of the 31 hardest-hit areas at 4.3 per cent of working-age people.

The percentage of low-paid jobs - one of the ‘critical drivers’ of the crisis - is the joint seventh-lowest at 17 per cent.

According to a report from the Centre for Progressive Policy, 26.6 per cent of working-age people between 16 and 64 - slightly more than one in four - are not in employment or seeking employment and are therefore deemed ‘economically inactive’.

Last week, Barnsley Council chief executive Sarah Norman said there are more than 10,000 people in the borough who are currently unemployed but wanting to get back into work.