Punishing Poverty: A review of benefits sanctions and their impacts on clients and claimants

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Benefits sanctions are financial penalties that are given to people who are deemed to have not met the conditions for claiming benefits. The social security system has always been based on people meeting certain conditions – this has  been true for all working-age benefit claimants, with sanctions applicable to those who fail to observe those conditions. This has been the case since its inception.

However, the Coalition changed the conditions and increased the application, duration and severity of sanctions that apply to those claiming Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and extended the application of sanctions to those in the Work Related Activity Group of those claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Since 2012, benefit payments can be suspended for a minimum of four weeks and for up to three years where a person “fails to take sufficient steps to search for work”, to “prepare themselves for the labour market” or where they turn down an offer of employment or leave a job voluntarily.

Although it has been claimed officially there are no targets for the number of sanctions that are made, Greater Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau became very concerned about the increase in the number of clients they were seeing who had sanctions against them, and the duration of these sanctions. From July to September in 2013 they conducted a research survey to investigate these issues, and to look at how people claiming benefits who were already on very restricted incomes coped with the further reductions made.

Despite initial Government denials, it is clear that recently some Job Centres have been set targets for sanctioning claimants, with DWP staff creating “league tables” based on the number of sanctions issued by individual Job Centres.

The effects are apparent in the dramatic increase in the number of sanctions issued: in 2009 the number of claimants sanctioned was 139,000, consistent with number earlier in the decade; by 2011 this had increased to 508,0005.

Here are the key  findings of the research:

1. 60% of those sanctioned had been receiving JSA, but a further 33% were unfit for work and were receiving ESA.

2. 40% of respondents said they had not received a letter from the Job Centre informing them of the sanction.

3. Almost a quarter of respondents did not know why they had been sanctioned. 29% of respondents said they had been sanctioned because they had not done enough to look for work. However, many people commented that the sanction had been applied unfairly, when they had in fact looked for work or attended an interview as required, because of a very narrow interpretation of the rules or for reasons that were beyond their control.

4. More than half the respondents said they had not received any information about how to appeal against the sanction. Nonetheless, three-fifths (62%) of respondents had appealed. One third of these appeals had been successful and a further 23% of those who had appealed were still waiting to hear the outcome. Administrative delays in receiving formal notification of the sanction meant that a number of people had been refused leave to appeal because they were out of time, adding further to the perception that they had been treated unfairly.

5. The majority of respondents had been sanctioned for four weeks or less, but almost one third had been sanctioned for 10 weeks or more. The average duration of the sanction was 8 weeks.

6. Two-thirds of respondents had been left with no income after the sanction was imposed. Those with children reported they only had child benefit and child tax credits.

7. Just under a quarter (23%) of those sanctioned were living in households with children. More than 10% of respondents were lone parents.

8. Respondents coped with the loss of income by borrowing money from friends and family (80%), from the bank or on their credit card (8%) or from a pay day loan company (9%).

9. They also cut down on food (71%), heating (49%) and travel (47%). Almost a quarter (24%) had applied for a food parcel. Some respondents had been left to scrounge for food from skips or bins, or had had to resort to begging to feed themselves.

10. The sanction had a severe impact on the mental and physical health of many respondents. Existing health conditions were exacerbated because of poor diet and stress, and a number of respondents said they had attempted suicide or that they felt suicidal.

11. There were also serious effects on the wider family, particularly children, because of the loss of income. There were stresses also on adult relationships: one respondent said ‘the strain has quite literally smashed our family to pieces’.

12. Many respondents felt they had been unjustly treated because of the Job Centre’s own administrative errors or because a sanction had been imposed unreasonably given their circumstances.

Conclusions and recommendations

13. The Government’s Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), in its 2012 review of conditionality and sanctions in the benefits system, concluded that for conditionality to work it was essential that there was: (1) good communication; (2) personalisation; and (3) fairness.

14. The evidence of this survey is that none of these conditions is currently being met and that the imposition of sanctions is causing great hardship not only to claimants but to their dependants. The hardship is likely to make claimants less rather than more likely to be in a position to find and keep paid work.

15. CAB recommend that the findings of the SSAC should be implemented swiftly and effectively. Further, we recommend that greater consideration needs to be given to what the intended effects of sanctions are and how to avoid the many “unintended consequences” revealed by this survey.

Respondents also reported having their Disability Living Allowance (DLA), Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit cut.

DLA is a benefit paid on the basis of a persons’ care needs and is not conditional. It is not included in the benefits that can be the sanctioned. The fact that some people reported that this benefit had been cut, indicates that communication from the DWP had been poor and that people did not understand their situation adequately.

Although Housing Benefit and Council Tax reduction are also not subject to the sanctions regime, the local authority Revenue and Benefits Unit is informed by the Job Centre whenever a claim has stopped. This means that when a sanction is imposed people need to inform their local housing office in order to make sure that their housing benefit and council tax reduction restart, otherwise they risk incurring rent and council tax arrears, in addition to losing their benefit income. People claiming these benefits may be unaware that they need to let their housing office know about a sanction, and may therefore lose these benefits too.

Almost two-thirds of respondents (63%) had been left with no income after the imposition of the sanction. Those with children reported that they only had child benefit and child tax credits.

Almost three quarters of respondents (72%)  said that they had no other income for the period that they were sanctioned. Only 13% had received hardship payments and 15% reported that they had had other benefits.

The majority of respondents were living alone (51%), but almost a quarter of those sanctioned were living in households with children. More than 10% of respondents were lone parents. Where there are others in the household, the sanction clearly affects the whole household, not just the individual, even though other household members are not subject to the claimant’s conditionality rules. This is a particularly serious issue for children’s welfare. This also raises questions about what the boundaries are to the intended consequences of the benefits sanction. Is it fair to penalise children and others who are dependent on benefit claimants. What justification can be given for the effects of sanctions on other household members or wider family?

It is worrying that almost a quarter of those sanctioned lived in households with children and more than 10% of respondents were single parents. Loss of income for the parent inevitably imposes hardship on children in the household, as respondents’ accounts made clear. Children were aware of the threat of eviction and of the stress on their parent(s). Although parents did their best to shield their children from the effects of the sanction (for example by going without food themselves so that their children could eat), children were adversely affected.

One child was taken out of school because her mother could not afford the taxi fare to get her to school. There was no evidence that DWP had sought to monitor these effects or that there was adequate access to appropriate hardship arrangements.

A number of respondents said they had not been told about the possibility of applying for a hardship payment until it was too late to do so. Turning these payments into loans, under the 2012 Welfare Reform legislation, adds further to the indebtedness that sanctions create, and therefore to consequences that extend well beyond the period of the sanction. Additionally, a proportion of those sanctioned had taken out pay day loans, (the high-cost credit sector has many lucrative links with Conservatives, too), others had used overdrafts and credit cards to try and get by. Several people reported that they were forced to take out illegal loans from loan sharks. Respondents also reported that they had had to sell furniture and other household items, or pawn goods in order to cope financially.

Furthermore, many people who had had a sanction imposed had suffered serious consequences, particularly in terms of their mental and physical health, which cannot be regarded as an appropriate part of the conditional provision of social security.

Appeals

Forty percent of respondents said they had not received a letter from the Job Centre informing them of the sanction, and it is therefore not surprising that more than half of all respondents (51%) said they had not received any information about how to appeal against the sanction. Nevertheless 62% of respondents had appealed. One third of those who appealed were successful, a further 23% were still awaiting the outcome of their appeal.

A number of claimants had been unfairly refused leave to appeal because they were outside the one month time limit, this was because of DWP administrative delays in informing them formally of the sanction.

The key recommendations are:

  •  The DWP should put into place effective arrangements to monitor sanctions and the impacts on claimants and their families. Data from this should be published regularly.
  • Action should be taken to mitigate the negative effects of sanctions such as exacerbating ill health and penalising claimants’ children.
  • Sanctions should be fair and proportional. Clients should not be sanctioned for things that are not their fault, such as administrative errors, or that are beyond their control.
  •  Job Centre Plus should review its communications with clients and ensure that important information about sanctions and appeals reaches them effectively. In particular, clients should understand the reason why the sanction has been imposed and how they can appeal against it. They should also be given information about hardship payments.

The results of the survey indicate very clearly that the three requirements for effective conditionality of benefits set out by the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) in their 2012 report – communication, personalisation and fairness – are not being met in an  unacceptably large number of cases.

The requirements placed on people claiming benefits that had led to a sanction being imposed, often failed to take into account the realities of life, whether this was the lack of resources in rural areas for those on a low income, the effects of disability, illness, lack of familiarity with computers, or bereavement, as many claimants’ accounts indicated.

It was found that many people who had had a sanction imposed suffered serious consequences, particularly in terms of their family relationships, mental and physical health, which cannot be regarded as an appropriate or acceptable part of the conditional provision of social security. 


The full report is here

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Pictures from the brilliant Robert Livingstone.

Related

Benefit sanctions are not fair and are not helping people into work

Rising ESA sanctions: punishing the vulnerable for being vulnerable

The targeting, severity and impact of sanctions on benefit claimants needs urgent review

The just world fallacy

Welfare reforms, food banks, malnutrition and the return of Victorian diseases are not coincidental, Mr Cameron

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Update

Samuel Miller, a very dedicated Canadian campaigner for human rights and a disability specialist has been submitting work to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, (to which the last Labour government signed up) to inform a much-needed inquiry, which he has requested.

Samuel has included articles from my site to support his request on our behalf, including this one, and he forwarded this to me:

The UNCRPD Secretary, Mr. Jorge Araya, has acknowledged receipt of your article and attached report on benefit-sanctioning.

Jorge Araya

Attachments 3:29 AM

Dear Mr. Miller

I acknowledge receipt of the attachment.

Regards

United Nations Human Rights
Jorge Araya
Secretary of the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Groups in Focus Section
Human Rights Treaties Division

Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

E-mail: jaraya@ohchr.org
Tel: +41 22 917 9106
Fax: +41 22 917 9008
Web: www.ohchr.org

And previously:

Letter to High Commissioner, Navi Pillay, below. I included your superb article in my letter, Sue.

Subject: There is an urgent need for a UN investigation into the United Kingdom’s benefit-sanctioning regime

Samuel Miller <disabilityinliterature@gmail.com>

Attachments3:58

High Commissioner Navi Pillay
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)
Palais Wilson
52 rue des Pâquis
CH-1201 Geneva, Switzerland.

Dear Ms. Pillay,

I am a 57-year-old Disability Studies specialist and disability activist from Montreal, Canada who has been communicating frequently and voluntarily, since January 2012, to senior United Nations officials, on the welfare crisis for the United Kingdom’s sick and disabled. (See attached, and the following: http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1rp0uui,http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1rtnc63, http://www.twitlonger.com/show/n_1rtvfk5).

It is my understanding that a 22-page letter, pointing out that cuts to social security benefits introduced by Iain Duncan Smith and enforced by his Department for Work and Pensions on behalf of the Coalition government may constitute a breach of the UK’s international treaty obligations to the poor, will also be discussed at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in New York, in September. It is signed by Raquel Rolnik, the former UN special rapporteur on adequate housing; Magdalena Sepúlveda Carmona, the former UN special rapporteur on extreme poverty; and Olivier De Schutter, the former UN special rapporteur on the right to food.

Could you please add, as an addendum to that letter, my partial bibliography on Britain’s benefit-sanctioning regime, which is attached below in PDF format. My views can be found on page two; I am extremely concerned about the British government’s soaring use of benefit sanctions, and the evidence from MPs and the Work & Pensions Committee, which provides oversight of the Department for Work and Pensions, is especially compelling and strongly suggests that the government is stitching-up benefit claimants and is involved in a cover-up of that fact. The refusal of the government to agree to the Work & Pensions Committee’s request for an independent inquiry into this matter only compounds suspicion.

In closing, I would be most appreciative if the Human Rights Council and the OHCHR would open an investigation into this matter. This article (https://kittysjones.wordpress.com/2014/08/16/uk-becomes-the-first-country-to-face-a-un-inquiry-into-disability-rights-violations/) is very worthy of your—and their—attention, as well.

I wish to congratulate you on your tenure as High Commissioner, and wish you every success in your future endeavors.

Warm regards

Samuel Miller

 

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38 thoughts on “Punishing Poverty: A review of benefits sanctions and their impacts on clients and claimants

  1. Everything that comes out of IDS’s mouth is a lie! There are targets, people are not as thick as he thinks.
    This man ought to be sacked immediately, he should never have been given the position in the first place as he is a narcissist, and he actually enjoys people’s suffering.
    The DWP hand out sanctions like sweets without a thought for the claimant and his/her family/circumstances.
    Something needs to be done, people are starving, our children are starving, diseases that had been eradicated from this country are coming back and health issues are getting worse through stress, hunger and poverty.
    This government have ruined the UK completely!

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on Vox Political and commented:
    “The Government’s Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC), in its 2012 review of conditionality and sanctions in the benefits system, concluded that for conditionality to work it was essential that there was: (1) good communication; (2) personalisation; and (3) fairness.
    “The evidence of this survey is that none of these conditions is currently being met.”
    Says it all, doesn’t it?

    Like

  3. My name is Nick and my helpers want me to accept the label of ‘alcoholic’ and when I refuse it, what do I get? Yep! ‘In denial.’ This label is of the order of ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘manic depressive.’ Oh do they wag their heads so wisely! I am hailed with the newest handle on the block, I have bi-polar disorder, it means to me, I am sometimes a very bright nutter. Relevant to the world of seedier nomenclature relating to my paymasters in Whitehall, my fee for remaining an exhibit comes to 450 each month. BUT, each hour they wring 1 from my sad fucking ass is less benefit paid by fellow citizens who are left unaware how many suicides pave the road to Whitehall. First wave: when a murderously inaccurate WCA conducted by inexperienced mental illness ‘healthcare professionals’, ATOS truly lead to innocent mental health service users with a track record of parasuicidal behaviour, really scared them to take their own lives. AND, surviving to the next level, many of those already terrified at the thought of going into work, where there is insufficient preparation and support, Also, it cannot be totally certain that mental health service users will not be singled out by colleagues and managers. Does the government pledge to provide long term support to human beings whose lives they are gambling with? Support both at work and when they get home? Is the whole shooting match thought out? Many might welcome benefit reforms. I suggest a roll call for the compliant and stop thinking it is “big” to bully those less able. Nick Shipley. (I have a personal story of ATOS to tell also)Date: Sat, 8 Feb 2014 06:19:14 +0000 To: nickship@msn.com

    Like

  4. There’s some entertainment in my piece below but what I think I must do to respect the remit is move toward experiences within the ATOS/ESA/WCA process. If you could acknowledge the remedy and offer me a critique of what it is below I welcome your support toward something classy I hope!Nick

    From: nickship@msn.com To: comment+_wkw0re0crdc_mjjyf40byo@comment.wordpress.com Subject: RE: [New post] Punishing Poverty: A review of benefits sanctions and their impacts on clients and claimants Date: Sun, 16 Feb 2014 14:58:48 +0000

    My name is Nick and my helpers want me to accept the label of ‘alcoholic’ and when I refuse it, what do I get? Yep! ‘In denial.’ This label is of the order of ‘schizophrenic’ or ‘manic depressive.’ Oh do they wag their heads so wisely! I am hailed with the newest handle on the block, I have bi-polar disorder, it means to me, I am sometimes a very bright nutter. Relevant to the world of seedier nomenclature relating to my paymasters in Whitehall, my fee for remaining an exhibit comes to 450 each month. BUT, each hour they wring 1 from my sad fucking ass is less benefit paid by fellow citizens who are left unaware how many suicides pave the road to Whitehall. First wave: when a murderously inaccurate WCA conducted by inexperienced mental illness ‘healthcare professionals’, ATOS truly lead to innocent mental health service users with a track record of parasuicidal behaviour, really scared them to take their own lives. AND, surviving to the next level, many of those already terrified at the thought of going into work, where there is insufficient preparation and support, Also, it cannot be totally certain that mental health service users will not be singled out by colleagues and managers. Does the government pledge to provide long term support to human beings whose lives they are gambling with? Support both at work and when they get home? Is the whole shooting match thought out? Many might welcome benefit reforms. I suggest a roll call for the compliant and stop thinking it is “big” to bully those less able. Nick Shipley. (I have a personal story of ATOS to tell also)Date: Sat, 8 Feb 2014 06:19:14 +0000 To: nickship@msn.com

    Like

  5. I’m waiting to see if I’ve got 2 sanctions. Had a bereavement which made mental health and asthma bad. Lost an apptment letter.usually get a text but didnt,found out I’d missed one.Then WP rang and said next course was postponed a week ahead asked it was a Wed she said yes. Sat there for an hour til they said they had no record for it. Now I think it was day before. They inform me it goes to DWP to inform them I’ve not attended. One of the questions on WP forms is does your my condition make you disorganised. But it seems they can’t make allowances for this. I think it is discrimination. It seems by the above article people have been placed in similar situations. They are taking advantage of our vulnerability and health problems to achieve their sanctioning agenda and pat on the back from DWP managets,. Its sick. I hate IDs and these wicked blessed Tories.

    Like

  6. There are targets. Everyone who is out of work is a target.

    This is on top of whatever twist of fate or what have you has led to people
    being dumped out of work, turfed out of their house, ill, or all three and/or more…

    Like

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