Human cost of sanctioning jobless revealed

By Savi Hensman
October 30, 2013

The UK supreme court has confirmed that the government had broken the law through failing to supply adequate information about its work-or-starve schemes for jobless people. Yet, by and large, ministers are succeeding in inflicting terrible hardship on many unemployed and sick people, as Citizens Advice Bureau research reveals.

Cait Reilly, an unemployed woman who was forced to leave a volunteer placement that might have helped her get a job and instead work free for Poundland, though she already had retail experience, won her case. The government has shown itself willing to ignore legality, let alone the claims of justice and mercy, in its treatment of some of the most vulnerable in society. Such ‘workfare’ schemes do not even make economic sense, since firms can use free labour to substitute for hiring staff.

Citizens Advice Bureaux have produced a report on people who have been ‘sanctioned’ – losing some or all of their benefits for between four weeks and three years for supposedly not doing enough to seek work. This policy too may actually undermine rather than assist the chances of getting a job and the human cost is sometimes devastating.

Punishing Poverty? A review of benefits sanctions and their impacts on clients and claimants was produced by Manchester CAB on behalf of the Greater Manchester Citizens Advice Bureaux Cluster Group. It reviews benefits sanctions and their impact on clients and claimants across the UK from the findings of a survey carried out between July and September 2013. The findings are deeply disturbing.

As the report explains, “Benefits sanctions are financial penalties that are given to claimants who are deemed to have not met the necessary conditions for claiming benefits.” Successive governments have imposed increasingly harsh penalties.

Those punished include people who, even according to the flawed testing system currently used, are too sick or severely disabled to have much chance of getting a job, though they might be able to in the future. For instance, someone of working age who has had a major stroke might recover – or stay the same, or die. So they might be put into the work related activity group of the Employment and Support Allowance. Worryingly, a third of those sanctioned were unfit to work.

Those whose social security payments were cut usually borrowed money and cut down on food, as well as often reducing heating in their homes. This could be hard, especially for those with children. Some sought food parcels.

One person “Starved and lived off what I had. Scrounged food from bins and only left the house after darkness fell. Had no electric or gas so had to get ready-to-eat food. Struggled and went without nothing for three days with just bread and a block of cheese that my friend kindly gave me as it was past its sell by date.” Another “Went without meals so my son could eat.”

The reasons they were punished could seem arbitrary. For instance “A letter was returned which they sent to the wrong address.” In another case, “Job Centre did not record I had informed them I was in hospital when I was due to attend appointment.”

People’s impairments or educational disadvantage were sometimes used against them. One person “could not attend job centre appointment as live in a village with no bus service and can’t drive due to epilepsy and not owning a car”, while another was “computer illiterate, did apply for job, but was sanctioned because it wasn't online.”

The impact on physical and mental health could be devastating. “I lost weight and got ill. I felt like a scavenging wild animal, not like a human. It's a miracle I didn't end up homeless,” a respondent explained.

Some accounts were harrowing: “I was on ESA due to a nervous breakdown in 2009 and have not been given even the slightest chance of recovery... I stay with a friend who feeds me, but have been suicidal for a long while now. I have now given up completely on claiming any benefits at all, as I can no longer face the prospect of the never-ending challenges. I have absolutely no hope left in me at all.”

Urgent action by people of all faiths and none is needed if such suffering is to be ended. This includes raising awareness in communities of the true cost of government policies that make life harder for those already in need.

The report can be found at:

(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector.

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