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