Jobless sanctions 'unjust', says Taxpayers Against Poverty

By staff writers
January 26, 2015

In its submission to a Commons select committee inquiry intobenefit sanctions policy, Taxpayers Against Poverty (TAP) says that the income of the unemployed "has been shredded by central government, taxed by local government and hit by ever rising rents."

The advocacy group, headed up by the Rev Paul Nicolson, has told the House of Commons Select Committee inquiry into benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley review that "the enforcement of fines for poverty related offences such as TV license or fare evasion and of late or non-payment of council tax continues to escalate while the sanction lasts up to the arrival of the bailiffs on the doorstep charging £75 for administration plus £235 for the visit."

Those with mental health problems, it says, "are more likely to be in debt." Indeed, debts can create mental health problems, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has suggested.

Using a specific example of what is going wrong, TAP declares: "The present procedure by which the Tottenham Jobcentre decides to sanction someone is far from just. The JSA is stopped so it does not appear in the claimants’ accounts. They then go to the jobcentre to ask why not. They are told they have been sanctioned and can appeal. They are without an income until the appeal is over; a hardship payment takes time to process."

The situation pertaining at present "is very far from Lord Freud’s assurances given to Parliament on 25 January 2012, that 'decision-makers will have to consider all relevant matters raised by the claimant within a particular time period, including information about a claimant’s health condition and financial circumstances'," TAP says.

"From that you might expect Jobcentre officials to become aware of the facts before JSA is stopped, so imposing a draconian punishment. Or better still for it to be dealt with by the independent local magistrates who normally fine offenders proportionately", the submission concludes.

Benefit sanctions involve the suspension of benefit payments for a set period, where claimants fail to meet certain conditions, such as attendance at Jobcentre appointments or participation in mandatory work schemes.

The sanctions regimes for both Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) were strengthened by the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

They have been denounced by anti-poverty campaigners, church leaders and charities as "cruel, unfair and unworkable".

The Anglican Bishop of Carlisle is among those who have spoken out strongly against punitive sanctions and misleading claims about benefit cheats.

New data released a fortnight ago reveals that benefits claimants judged as unfit to work due to mental health problems are more likely to have their benefits stopped by sanctions than those suffering from other conditions.

Policy advisers for the Methodist Church obtained the data using Freedom of Information Requests to the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). It shows that people who receive the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a long-term mental health problem are being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day.

Matthew Oakley conducted an independent review of JSA sanctions in relation to mandatory back to work schemes -- that is, principally, sanctions affecting JSA claimants participating in the Work Programme.

The Oakley Review was limited; the latest inquiry – in person last week, and also in terms of written submissions – is broader. It considers ESA sanctions, including whether the current ESA regime is appropriate and proportionate for jobseekers with ill health and disabilities.

It also considers whether the JSA and ESA regimes are achieving their policy intentions, the wider impacts on claimants, and possible alternatives.

In the Guardian newspaper on Friday 23 January, Patrick Butler, editor of society, health and education policy for the paper, summarised "Five things we've learned about benefit sanctions" based on evidence: that they are bad for health; that they hit those with worst health hardest, that they are a postcode lottery; that many sanctioned people 'disappear'; and that Jobcentre staff feel under pressure to sanction claimants inappropriately.

* Taxpayers Against Poverty: http://www.taxpayersagainstpoverty.org.uk

* House of Commons Select Committee: Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley review: http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-sele...

* The Oakley Review (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...

* Five things we've learned about benefit sanctions, by Patrick Butler (Guardian): http://www.theguardian.com/society/patrick-butler-cuts-blog/2015/jan/23/...

* Statement by Lord Freud to Parliament, 25 January 2012 : Column 1061, 4.15 pm.

* Desititution: is it government policy? By Bernadette Meaden, Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21360

* People with mental health problems face harsh benefit sanctions: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21338

* Bishop attacks punitive benefit sanctions and mistaken fraud rhetoric: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/21320

* Beyond the Barriers: ESA, the Work Programme and recommendations for a new system of support (Spartacus Network / Ekklesia, April 2014 report): http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/beyondbarriers

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