Jobseekers’ welfare sanctions may violate multiple rights

By Savi Hensman
March 25, 2013

Do you go to church on Sundays? Do you have young children who need you to look after them on Saturdays, or adult caring responsibilities for even a few hours a week? If you lose your job in the UK, you might be punished with destitution.

Shocking revelations in the Guardian newspaper indicate that job centre workers risk being disciplined if they do not cut the benefits of more claimants, supposedly on the grounds of not doing enough to find work. A leaked email by a manager warned staff at Walthamstow Job Centre that “Walthamstow are 95th in the league table out of only 109" in London and the home counties. They were instructed to sanction clients more often.

Claimants can be stripped of their social security payments for weeks, months or even years if they are accused of not having tried hard enough to find a job, though they might be able to get a reduced amount in a hardship allowance if they have no other means of support.

Even if they have worked for decades, paying national insurance and other taxes, or contributed to society in other ways, this counts for nothing in a harsh and unjust system.

Guardian journalists spoke to staff in other offices about the pressure they faced to cut benefits, potentially leaving people without enough for necessities like food and fuel. Vulnerable claimants are often the victims, including "people with language difficulties, people who can't read or write, or have learning disabilities" an adviser in Kent said.

Christians might be especially appalled by reports that staff in a job centre in the West Midlands were told that the team who submitted the most Stricter Benefit Regime "Refusal of Employment" referrals would be rewarded with Easter eggs.

Ministers at first denied that such targets and league tables existed, then agreed to hold an inquiry.

Elsewhere on the internet, what appears to be a copy of the Walthamstow email gives further details of how the pittance which jobseekers receive can be taken away from them. It advises, “listen for tell-tale phrases – ‘I pick up the kids’... suggest that the customer may not be fully available for work. Even cases where a parent shares custody can be considered if the arrangement is informal’.

It asks, “Is the customer placing restrictions on their availability – wants retail but can’t work on a Saturday... Are they available for every day of the week”. This would appear to be unfortunate for people who observe the Sabbath, or who just want to go to synagogue or church most weeks, as well as those with caring commitments.

Failure to attend an activity in which a client has been ordered to take part can provide further excuses to dock someone’s social security payments, the document indicates. Presumably if a jobseeker is often in poor mental or physical health, or supporting someone else who is, they are at heightened risk of falling foul of this requirement.

Some of those whose benefit has been cut may not even be fully aware of what is happening or why.

If the information emerging about these sanctions is accurate, it paints a grim picture of a country where harsh injustice is widely accepted. According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to a standard of living that meets their basic needs, including security in the event of unemployment, to protection of their family life and freedom to practice their religion.

If such rights are routinely trampled on, everyone is at risk.


(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.