Sanctioning hunger

Share

If I need to take a day off work, I don’t usually lose one month’s salary as a result. However, if you’re claiming jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) and delays to your bus journey mean you arrive ten minutes late for an interview at the Jobcentre, you could well find yourself having your benefit stopped for four weeks or more through a sanction.

The knock-on impacts can be dramatic: living on a low income is difficult enough anyway, and having a subsistence income withdrawn is clearly going to present challenges, especially if you have children in the house or an underlying health condition.

New research by CPAG, Church of England, Oxfam and the Trussell Trust provides persuasive evidence that the use of sanctions by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is driving some people to resort to foodbanks. Conducted with various foodbanks across the country and speaking to over 900 food bank users, the report Emergency Use Only: Understanding and reducing the use of foodbanks in the UK showed how between 20 and 30% of foodbank users had their household benefits reduced or stopped because of a sanction. Others were affected by delays in benefits payments and decisions. Many participants were not aware of the various emergency payments available in different circumstances, and even fewer were receiving them. Only half (or less) of the users we spoke to knew they could seek support from the Local Welfare Assistance Scheme; very few of those potentially eligible had been awarded short-term benefit advances or hardship payments.

And the figures on the numbers of sanctions of JSA claimants, and more recently of employment and support (ESA) claimants as well, are truly staggering. Analysis this November by Dr David Webster, Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow, highlights that the Work Programme continues to deliver more JSA sanctions (548,873) than job outcomes (312,780).

The most common reason for a sanction being imposed is for failing to actively seek work, followed by failures to attend training/employment scheme and missing an interview. ESA sanctions meanwhile have risen to an all-time high, reaching an estimated 1.16% of claimants per month before reconsideration and appeal.

However, even more worryingly, since the introduction of mandatory reconsideration on 28 October 2013, there has been an “almost total collapse” in appeals to tribunals. Dr Webster finds that for the period April to June 2014, there were only 23 tribunal decisions on JSA and ESA, compared to a normal monthly rate of more than 1,000. If due to delays to decisions about challenges to sanctions being applied, this has the effect of causing further injustice and hardship to claimants. Dr Webster’s analysis suggests that the kind of privation and hardship experienced by the people we spoke to may be widespread.

With all of the above in mind, we’ve launched a new online information and advice service, Ask CPAG Online, which has a wealth of information on both avoiding unjustified JSA and ESA sanctions, as well as tips for challenging flawed sanction decisions.

We’ve also included information on how to claim hardship payments if a sanction is applied, as our feedback suggests that many claimants are not routinely told about this provision which can help people to struggle through the period of a sanction.

We hope that this information, aimed at professional welfare rights advisers, but also clear and straightforward for JSA and ESA claimants as well, might play some small part in alleviating the serious hardship sanctions can cause. We’d welcome any comments you might have about this information, especially about how you’d like to see the service develop in the future.

Our food banks report recommends a series of changes to how the benefits system is administered which could reduce the number of people who are forced to rely on food banks. With the Work and Pensions Committee of the House of Commons currently consulting on the use of sanctions, we’d also encourage all interested parties to respond with information before the closing date of 12 December. Despite mounting evidence before the Department of Work and Pensions, our experience and the evidence suggests sanctions continue to cause extreme hardship for too many people, too often.