Satirical Twitter response after Welfare Weekly used a Freedom of Information request to reveal that the Department for Work and Pensions had been using fake claimants and made-up comments to justify the use of punitive welfare sanctions
The government’s controversial benefit sanctions regime can cause “damage to the wellbeing of vulnerable claimants and can lead to hunger, debt and destitution”, according to a damning new report, which debunks Tory myths that benefit sanctions – denying people who are already struggling the only means by which to support themselves and their families – “incentivise people into work.”
In a report titled Benefit Conditionality and Sanctions in Salford – One Year on, commissioned by Salford City Council in 2014, comprised of a task force of Salford’s Financial Inclusion Practitioner’s Group (FIPG), it was concluded that, far from than “incentivising” people to move into work, the sanctions regime actually serves as a demotivator and barrier, preventing people from engaging in appropriate training, volunteering and employment-related activities.
Furthermore, the sudden loss of income caused by removing benefits – through the imposition of a punitive sanctions regime – often damages people’s mental health, creates tensions within family relationships and may cause individuals to turn to crime in order to meet their basic survival needs.
The report says: “Despite the drop in numbers in Salford receiving a benefit sanction, for those who are sanctioned the impact is devastating.
“A ‘financial shock’ such as a sanction causes both immediate and longer term impact as most people do not have the means to save, so have no safety net. This presents an emergency need for money to buy food, pay for heating and essential travel costs.”
The report also says that the rate of people being sanctioned in the area has not reduced over the previous 12 month period. But, critically, it adds: “Register sizes are decreasing and we believe this is in part due to a growing number of “disappeared“. These are claimants who drop their benefit claim or who move off benefit but do not take up employment. The Government has refused to publish destination data.” (See also: Government under fire for massaging unemployment figures via benefit sanctions from Commons Select Committee.)
The report goes on to say: “From the wide range of responses we have received from Salford agencies working with claimants, despite the fall in sanctions, the impact of sanctions both on claimants and services within the City cannot be overstated and the harsh regime will be expected to include additional groups as Universal Credit rolls out nationally this year.”
The report follows on from an interim study, published in October 2014, which predicted that sanctioning would most likely lead to extreme material hardship, mental health problems such as depression, and an increasing reliance on loan sharks. The interim report was submitted as evidence to the parliamentary inquiry into the impact of benefit sanctions.
Salford City Mayor, Paul Dennett said: “People on benefits are already struggling to afford food, heating and essential costs. They can’t save so they have no financial safety net. They live in dread of being sanctioned which isn’t the right frame of mind for job hunting, volunteering or going back into education.”
Rebecca Long Bailey, the Labour MP for Salford and Eccles, has said that the research “shows charities are increasingly having to step in to support claimants who are thrown into crisis due to delays and sanctions”.
She added: “As an MP, I have seen some truly horrific cases, where the effects have been severe damage to my constituents’ mental and physical health, as well as the tragic case of David Clapson, who was found dead in his flat from diabetic ketoacidosis, two weeks after his benefits were suspended. His sister discovered her brother’s body and found his electricity had been cut off, meaning the fridge where he stored his insulin was no longer working. They must know that sanctioning people with diabetes is very dangerous but the system treats people as statistics and numbers.
This report shows where we are in Salford today, one year on from the original report. Sadly, it illustrates the devastating impact sanctions have on the lives of people who are already struggling to make ends meet.”
Earlier this month, another collaborative research project, which is based at York university, also launched the publication of first wave findings from an ongoing study on the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality. This project started in 2013 and will finish in 2018. The researchers, from a variety of universities across the UK, draw on data from interviews with 52 policy stakeholders, 27 focus groups conducted with practitioners, and 480 “wave a” qualitative longitudinal interviews with nine groups of welfare service users in England and Scotland. The study includes 480 people living in Bath, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Greater Manchester, Inverness, London, Peterborough, Sheffield and Warrington, and is aimed at determining what longer-term effects the sanctions and employment “support” are having.
Most respondents report negative experiences of conditional welfare interventions. Linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements under threat of sanction has created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment among claimants.
The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by welfare service users as profoundly negative. Routinely, sanctions had severely detrimental financial, material, emotional and health impacts on those subject to them. There was evidence of certain individuals disengaging from services or being pushed toward “survival crime”. Harsh, disproportionate or inappropriate sanctioning created deep resentment and feelings of injustice.
A recurring theme in peoples’ experiences was that sanctions or other enforcement measures were out of proportion to the “offence”, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes by Jobcentre or Work Programme staff.
The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and/or vulnerabilities. Many saw Jobcentre Plus in particular as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliancy with behavioural requirements, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support.
At the heart of welfare conditionality is an unfounded belief that it will change service users’ behaviour. Research to date in this first wave of findings has found very little evidence of welfare conditionality bringing about positive behaviour change in terms of preparing for or finding paid work and/or ending what is assumed to be “irresponsible behaviour” (rather than a consequence of the realities of labour market and socioeconomic constraints.)
Many welfare service users challenged the notion that they did not want to work. Virtually all interviewees in this study expressed a desire to work in the future when, and if, their personal situations made this possible.
If you want to take part in this study, please get in touch if you live in one of these areas: Bath, Bristol, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Greater Manchester, Inverness, London, Peterborough, Sheffield and Warrington. Your personal details will be kept confidential.
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