FIVE British churches are calling for a "full and independent
review" of the sanctions regime for claimants of 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 United Reformed Church, and the campaign group Church Action on
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
and compliance." It concludes: "It is incumbent on the Christian
community to speak out against any system which treats people so
"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 [Department for Work and
Pensions] 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
Dr Morgan said that the DWP 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."
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 afterwards."
Despite repeated questioning from Dame Anne Begg, Labour MP for
Aberdeen South, who chairs the Committee, 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
Responding to today's report, the DWP said: "Sanctions are only
used as a last resort for the tiny minority who fail to take up the
support which is on offer."
The report can be downloaded from