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Benefit sanctions punish job-seekers unjustly, say Churches

02 March 2015


The state of welfare: the report by the five Churches calls for an independent review of the benefits sanctions system

The state of welfare: the report by the five Churches calls for an independent review of the benefits sanctions system

FIVE British churches are calling for a "full and independent review" of the sanctions regime for those on unemployment benefits, and an "urgent reform of the hardship-payments system" after a series of Freedom of Information Act requests revealed that 100,000 children were affected by benefit sanctions in 2013/14.

The figures come in a report, Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church, the URC, and the campaign group Church Action on Poverty.

There are two main unemployment benefits that can be affected by sanctions: Jobseekers Allowance, for those actively seeking work; and Employment and Support Allowance, for those unable to work because of illness or disability.

The report says that these benefits were suspended on more than one million occasions last year; affecting more than one fifth of all job-seekers. In most instances, benefits were stopped for a month; some, though, have had their benefit suspended for up to three years.

About 100,000 children were affected by these sanctions in 2013/14, the report suggests. It also says that more than 100 people assessed as unfit for work because of mental-health problems are sanctioned each day. In all, a total of seven million weeks of sanctions were imposed in the year 2013/14, up from 1 to 1.5 million weeks during the previous decade.

"Sanctions are a system of penalties imposed on those who have not obeyed, in full, detailed instructions related to finding work," the report says. "This policy has been slowly introduced into the benefit system since the mid 1980s. Before this, people who did not meet basic conditions such as being available for work were removed from the benefit roll.

"However, unlike sanctions, there was no punishment intended - therefore a person was able to reapply for benefit when they became available for work."

It describes the sanctions regime as "a deliberate punishment", and says: "We are disturbed that a benefit system intended to provide for the needy and vulnerable is used as a means of coercion and compliance."

It concludes: "It is incumbent on the Christian community to speak out against any system which treats people so unjustly."

"The findings of this report are disturbing," the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said. "It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.

"Most worryingly, it appears from DWP guidance, quoted in the report, that deprivation and hunger are knowingly being used as a punishment for quite trivial breaches of benefit conditions. Employers would not be allowed to stop someone's wages for a month the first time they were ten minutes late for an appointment, but this is the kind of sanction that is being imposed on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those with mental and physical health problems."

Dr Morgan said that the Department of Work and Pensions had not provided data relating to Wales, despite a request made more than three months ago. The Freedom of Information Act requires public authorities to provide information within 20 working days.

The director of Church Action on Poverty, Niall Cooper, said: "If you commit a crime, no criminal court in the UK is allowed to make you go hungry as a punishment; but if you're late for an appointment at the Jobcentre, they can remove all your income and leave you unable to feed you or your family for weeks at a time.

"Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that, far from providing a safety net, the benefit-sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute. This policy must be reviewed urgently."

The Work and Pensions Select Committee has recently concluded an inquiry into the benefit sanctions regime. It is due to report its findings shortly.

Giving evidence to the official inquiry, the Employment Minister Esther McVey, said: "All the international evidence suggests that sanctions do have a positive impact on people getting into work, and there are two parts of that: as a deterrent, it has a positive impact on moving people into work; and there is further research that, should somebody have been sanctioned, it helps them into work afterwards."

Despite repeated questioning from the committee chair, Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for Aberdeen South, Ms McVey was unable to cite any evidence to support the effectiveness of the Government's recent extension of the maximum sanction time from six months to three years.

Responding to today's report, the Department for Work and Pensions said that Job Centre Plus advisers are helping claimants back into work every day. "Sanctions are only used as a last resort for the tiny minority who fail to take up the support which is on offer."

The research by the five churches and Church Action on Poverty will be featured on "Britain's Benefits Crackdown" a report from Channel Four's Dispatches programme, tonight (Monday) at 8 p.m.

The report can be downloaded from  http://www.jointpublicissues.org.uk/resources/rethinksanctions/


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