Benefit sanctions - overused, harmful and unjustified

By Bernadette Meaden
August 3, 2015

David Clapson died with no food in his stomach, three weeks after his Jobseekers Allowance was stopped due to a benefit sanction. David, a 59 year old diabetic who had served in the Army and cared for his late mother, was desperately seeking work when he fell foul of the sanctions regime. The DWP said,
"Sanctions are only used as a last resort for a tiny minority who don’t follow the rules.."

Similarly, when replying to an open letter from Catholics recently, Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith wrote,
"Benefit sanctions have been part of the system for at least the last four decades; however they are only applied as a last resort."

This statement from Mr. Duncan Smith could lead people to believe that nothing much has changed for many years, and that the current regime of benefit sanctions is one that is long-established. But that is not the case.

In October 2012 Mr. Duncan Smith passed into law his second Welfare Reform Act. Section 46 of the Act 'provides for the complete reform of the sanctions regime for JSA by creating a new section 19 of the Jobseekers Act.'

The Department for Work and Pensions explained, "We are transforming the sanction and hardship regimes to impose tougher and more proportionate penalties on JSA claimants who do not do everything they can to look for work, and on ESA claimants who do not do everything reasonable to prepare for work."

So whilst we may have had benefit sanctions in some form for four decades, the tougher regime we have now has been in existence for less than three years, having been introduced by Mr. Duncan Smith.

And what of the often repeated claim that benefit sanctions are only applied to a tiny minority of claimants, as a last resort? The response to a question tabled by Green Party peer Baroness Jones suggests that this claim is highly misleading.

In may 2015 the DWP stated that the previous year had seen, "over 94 per cent of JSA claimants and 99 per cent of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants not being sanctioned."

When asked by the Baroness how the DWP arrived at these figures, Lord Freud referred her to this explanation of methodology, which says, "The figures are based on an average monthly ratio of the total number of sanctions to the claimant count, i.e. the average number of decisions to apply a sanction per month divided by the average monthly JSA claimant count or number of ESA claimants in the WRAG group."

Importantly, the explanation goes on to say, "The figures quoted relate to an estimate of the proportion of JSA and ESA claimants that are sanctioned in a given month. They are not designed and should not be used to infer the proportion of claimants sanctioned over a long time period, e.g. a year."

Asked to publish annual figures of sanction rates for 2010 to 2014, the DWP refused, on the basis that “The information is not readily available and to provide it would incur disproportionate cost”

However, publicly available official statistics make it possible to calculate this figure, and the Green Party Work and Pensions spokesperson Jonathan Bartley says, "far from the number of Jobseekers receiving a sanction being a tiny minority, it is actually 17 per cent, or one in six."

This certainly reflects the actual experience of people receiving JSA and ESA, who report being sanctioned for trivial and highly unjust reasons. The government can no longer claim that they are used as a last resort. And remember what a sanction actually means – being deprived of income for at least four weeks, leaving a person destitute. If they have children, their children are effectively sanctioned too.

As the authors of the 'Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions' report have written, "It is precisely because of the damage caused by poverty on human well-being that the welfare state exists. We would argue that any human society should be disturbed by a statutory system that deliberately causes harm to another human being.

"At the heart of our Christian understanding of social justice is that human society should make provision for the weakest and most vulnerable. It is alarming to discover a welfare system that deliberately sets out to exploit a person’s vulnerability in order to achieve control and compliance."

Apart from them being unjustifiable on moral grounds, there is increasing doubt over whether sanctions actually achieve their ostensible aim of 'helping' people into work. Academics, MPs, and now even the government's own advisers have called for 'an urgent and robust review' of the sanctions regime introduced by the Secretary of State.

As Universal Credit is rolled out, low-paid workers will become subject to sanctions, bringing over a million more people into this harsh regime.

There is also the shocking suggestion that people who are obese, or who have addiction problems, may face sanctions if they refuse any treatment that the DWP orders them to undergo. We know that many people turn to drugs, drink, or even food, as a response to trauma or abuse they have suffered in their lives. Are we now going to threaten them with destitution too?

It is urgent that benefit sanctions are fundamentally reconsidered, or better, completely scrapped


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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