Benefit sanctions - inhumane, legally dubious and potentially fatal

By Bernadette Meaden
March 5, 2016

A mother too malnourished to breastfeed her baby -  not in a famine-stricken developing country, but in the UK, today. This is how Suzanne was affected by a benefit sanction.

Suzanne's comfortable life tipped into poverty just before her baby was born, when she was made redundant and her husband suffered a breakdown. The couple skipped meals in order to feed their two young boys, but when a three month sanction was applied to her benefits, it was the last straw. Suzanne says, “I’ve worked for 25 years and there I was in tears at the Jobcentre with a baby on my lap being told we’d only have £50 per week to live on.”

The welfare state was set up so that families like Suzanne's, when they suffer a misfortune like a job loss or a breakdown, would be provided with an income sufficient to live on. Not a comfortable life, but a bearable one. Parents and children going hungry was exactly what the welfare state was set up to prevent, but that is what benefit sanctions are now deliberately inflicting. Does the state not, at the very least, have a duty of care towards children? When a parent is sanctioned, a child is sanctioned too.

Fortunately Suzanne was directed to a foodbank, which she says was 'a lifesaver'. But many people hit by benefit sanctions fall through the net, and for the most vulnerable it can have fatal consequences. People like David Clapson, a diabetic who died when his benefits were stopped. His body was found beside a pile of CVs, with no electricity, a few teabags and a tin of soup in the house.

Benefit sanctions are used against jobseekers, people with physical or mental health problems, and people with a learning disability. Think about it. You are surviving on a low income, possibly very anxious about leaving the house, and reliant on public transport to get to the Jobcentre. If your bus is late,  you may be punished with a sanction that causes you to go hungry, or worse. How is this achieving anything constructive, apart from saving the DWP a little money?

But benefit sanctions are not only inhumane and counter-productive, they are a grossly disproportionate and legally very dubious form of punishment. Michael Adler, Emeritus Professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Edinburgh has studied the sanctions regime and says there are serious questions about its legality, concluding, "benefit sanctions, as they have developed in the UK, are incompatible with justice."

Dr. David Webster of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies has described sanctions as, "an amateurish, secret penal system which is more severe than the mainstream judicial system, but lacks its safeguards. It is time for everyone concerned for the rights of the citizen to demand their abolition."

On Wednesday (9 March ) there will be a day of action calling for benefit sanctions to be stopped. There are events happening all over the country, and  you can find out about them here.You can also add your support on social media by joining the Thunderclap here 

David Clapson's sister Gill Thompson is also trying to raise funds to enable her to get a full and public investigation into the circumstances surrounding her brother's death.

"David had Type 1 Diabetes and the Coroner's report stated that he died from fatal diabetic ketoacidosis and that there was no food in his stomach. The DWP were aware of his condition, yet sanctioned him for a month. David then had no money for electricity so was unable to chill his insulin or buy food. Whilst he died as a result of his diabetes, the sanctioning took away his lifeline."

 "The circumstances leading to David’s death have never been openly investigated. I would like to secure an inquest into the circumstances of David's death so that there is a full and public investigation into the impact of the sanctions on my brother,  and whether the sanctions contributed to his death. To do this I need to instruct lawyers, apply for David’s records, pay fees for these records, and seek expert evidence to build the strongest case."

* To help Gill get a full investigation of David's death, click here


© 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

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.