“CRUEL” benefit sanctions represent a return to Victorian England and are putting lives at risk, according to a food bank manager.

Salvation Army minister Colin Bradshaw has called on the Government to stop sanctioning, as the Darlington foodbank he manages reaches its first anniversary.

Sanctions are used to reduce or stop benefits when a claimant fails to comply with rules laid out by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).

However, the strategy has been widely criticised, with opponents claiming sanctions are often implemented for spurious reasons.

Mr Bradshaw says more than 70 per cent of the foodbank users on his register have been sanctioned.

He said: “One man worked most of his life and had to claim benefits when his workplace went under.

“He was in hospital with a chest infection and missed a job centre appointment, was sanctioned and came to us.

“Weeks later, he died of a heart attack – we have no proof sanctioning caused it but his friend said it was the stress and shame of having to use a foodbank.

“I’ve heard many stories, from people in hospital to people sanctioned because they didn’t apply for jobs they weren’t qualified for.”

He added: “Some who are sanctioned go without income for months and become reliant on foodbanks.

“I’ve got nothing against some form of discipline to make sure people use the system properly but the way sanctions are used is cruel.

“It serves no purpose in saving money and is leaving people hungry and vulnerable – in fact, it comes at a cost because people are committing crimes to feed themselves.

“It takes us back to Victorian England, we’re victimising people who are unemployed and inflicting cruelty on them.

“If someone commits murder, they’re innocent until proven guilty and can defend themselves– here, someone at a desk decides something’s wrong and you’re sanctioned and any appeal can take five weeks.

“It leaves people unable to eat or heat their homes and it’s putting lives at risk - people are coming to us because they’re starving.

“People think sanctions are for those too bone-idle to work but the majority of people we see are hardworking people unemployed through no fault of their own.”

A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman said: "We spend £94bn a year on working age benefits and the welfare system supports millions of people every day.

“Our vital reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities and will guarantee a strong welfare safety net.”