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The number of people claiming Universal Credit in the Lochaber West data zone rocketed by almost 142 per cent in the eight months up until Christmas.
Statistics recently published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) reveal there was almost a 75 per cent increase in the number of Universal Credit claimants throughout Highland when comparing take-up at March 2020 with the position in December 2020.
Whilst the number claiming Universal Credit in all areas of Highland has increased significantly, DWP reports that a staggering 49 out of the 56 of these areas have increased by 50 per cent or more.
In addition, 19 areas experienced staggering take-up levels in excess of 100 per cent. The largest increase was in Skye North West with an increase of 185 per cent, while Lochaber West registered the fourth highest increase among Highland data zones at 141.91 per cent – an increase from 136 claimants to 329 in the period in question.
Fort William South saw claimant numbers soar from 313 to 654 (up 108.95 per cent); Lochaber East and North saw claimants increase from 173 to 360 (108.09 per cent); Fort William North saw a rise in claimants from 198 to 361 (82.32 per cent) and Lochalsh experienced a rise from 108 to 248 (129.63 per cent).
Caol and Mallaig councillor Denis Rixson told Kilmallie Community Council recently that the economic pressure on Lochaber communities was clearly ‘enormous’.
Speaking to the Lochaber Times this week Councillor Rixson went further, saying the pandemic was having ‘catastrophic economic consequences’ in Lochaber.
And he added: ‘DWP’s figures show the number of claimants receiving unemployment-related benefits in Ward 11 (Caol and Mallaig) rose by 213 per cent between November 2019 and November 2020 – the fourth worst figures in Highland.
‘Unemployment in Highland, as measured by the number of people aged 16-64 seeking
work, increased by 99.6 per cent in Fort William between March and October 2020.
‘Behind these figures there are a lot of families facing really difficult circumstances. Those of us with salaries or pensions are not experiencing the same hardships as those who are seasonal workers or dependent upon casual labour.
‘The comfortably-off find their savings are increasing – because they have less to spend their money on. But, with the economy marking time there are many families without any earnings at all.
‘And fuel poverty is an increasing issue – the Highlands is not an easy place to keep warm in when facing The Beast from the East Two.’
However, Mr Rixson said one strength of Lochaber is the extraordinary number of community resilience groups – amongst the highest number in all the Highlands.
‘Thank goodness for them and their community larders,’ he told us. ‘But the Scottish Government should recognise that the pandemic has had different economic consequences in different places.
‘The Highlands are dependent upon the tourist industry – perhaps overly so. Our people have been hit hard. We need a lot more help than Visitor Management Plans and distant Rural Tourism Infrastructure Funding.
‘Only the Scottish Government has the resources for large-scale intervention
Highland Council depute leader, and chairperson of the recovery board, Councillor Alasdair Christie, said this scale of increase in the take-up of Universal Credit has not been seen before.
And he warned: ‘The fact that more than a third of the 56 geographical areas within Highland are experiencing such eye-watering increases of more than 100 per cent in the number of Universal Credit claimants, is a real cause for concern and underlines the disproportionate financial impact of Covid-19 for an increasing number of our citizens.’