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Benefits sanctions condemned as disproportionate

26 February 2016

THE General Synod has urged the Government to act on the recommendations of the report Feeding Britain, concerning benefits sanctions, and to review the impact and efficacy of the sanctions regime.

Introducing the debate on a diocesan-synod motion from West Yorkshire & the Dales, Canon Kathryn Fitzsimons said that a significant proportion of people were being driven to foodbanks as a direct result of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sanctions, that were leading to “enforced destitution”.

Sanctions were being imposed for minor offences such as being half an hour late for work, or missing an appointment by mistake, and the impact was significant for vulnerable people, who lost four weeks’ income as a result.

The number of churches involved in foodbank provision was illuminating, she said. The work on this inquiry was being led by the Archbishop, and had been put forward to make a “hunger-free Britain”.

“This motion is not about questioning the principle of people being sanctioned because they fail to meet appropriate expectations,” she said. “We are, however, questioning recent substantial increases in the severity of the sanctioning process, and in the frequency of sanctions’ being applied.”

Canon Graeme Buttery (Durham) said that the motion did not go far enough. “The Church should implore, beg, plead, and march down Whitehall” until the current system was changed. The Government and the Church must remember the human in every person, and help the poor, not just with material provisions, but with time and compassion. “You are your brother’s keeper,” he said.

Camilla Holmes (West Yorkshire & the Dales)said that the people being sanctioned were among the most “chaotic and marginalised” in society, vulnerable and needing help. The foodbanks had seen a huge rise in the number of people who had been sanctioned; the punishments were unfair and unhelpful, and their impact was severe. The Church must push for a fairer system.

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, referred to a survey produced a year ago by the Cumbria Welfare Reform Commission on the impact of sanctions on charities and housing associations, particularly in more deprived areas. He said that the survey was linked with a parliamentary group’s report on child poverty and health which suggested that sanctions would tip a further 1.5 million children into poverty by 2020.

The current system was “indiscriminate and unhelpful”, and could undo much of the good work and money that the Government was putting into mental health. The Bishop suggested three changes: more communication with claimants who did not understand what was going on; better training for DWP staff, who were “under considerable stress”; and advocacy for the most vulnerable, to avoid higher levels of confusion and misery.

Speaking to his amendment, Nigel Bacon (Lincoln) said that it was “absolutely right” that the Synod press the Government to implement in full the recommendations of the Feeding Britain report. It was important to recognise and affirm the work that had already been done on evaluating the impact of sanctions: “We’ve got to take what’s already been done and make the best use of it.” He argued that the evidence and arguments were already in place, and the Synod should now focus on pressing the Government to implement the recommendations.

Canon Fitzsimons said that while a lot of her wanted to support it, she would leave it to the Synod to decide.

Canon Pete Spiers (Liverpool) would vote in favour of it. “We know all the evidence: you have got your own dreadful stories. . . We need to get on and help change the Government’s mind.”

The Revd Zoe Heming (Lichfield) said that she was wholeheartedly in favour: “The time is for action, no longer discussion.” She said that many disabled people she mentored had had to stop volunteering lest they be deemed fit for work. She questioned whether jobs for people with complex needs were available.

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, was “anxious” about passing the amendment: “The matter is too important to leave us all going away saying ‘Wasn’t that wonderful: we passed a motion.’” The unamended motion asked the MPA to do something. He went on: “Yes, the Government have taken some action . . . but they have not done enough.” He warned: I fear it will allow us too wide a motion, which won’t give us a way of grasping this issue in future and bringing it back and saying ‘What’s happened next?’”

Philip Fletcher (Archbishops’ Council), who chairs the Mission and Public Affairs Division, urged the Synod to pass the amendment, and said that it would not have the consequences that Bishop Thornton feared: it would not mean that the MPA Council and staff would lose interest in the subject.

The Synod voted to accept Mr Bacon’s amendment.

The Archdeacon of Sheffield and Rotherham, the Ven. Malcolm Chamberlain (Sheffield), then moved an amendment calling on the Government to initiate a full and independent review of the benefit-sanctions regime.

“There is wealth of evidence to show that the current regime of benefit sanctions is having an adverse effect on some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” he said. “We know that . . . sanctions lasting a month or more are now regularly imposed, resulting in a serious loss of income for individuals and families dependent on benefit payments.”

One million sanctions had been imposed in 2013-14, and “around 100,000 children were affected. Furthermore, over 100 people, already assessed as being unfit for work through mental-health problems, are sanctioned every day. This is a far more extensive use of sanctions than before, and has made the UK sanctioning regime one of the most severe in the developed world. . .

“As a Church, surely we must question whether this highly punitive regime can be justified, and advocate a more flexible system.”

He said that the sanctions had resulted in homelessness in several cases, and that there were other cases in which “wholly inappropriate sanctions” had resulted in people “begging, borrowing, or stealing to meet basic needs”.

He said that some had been sanctioned “just for turning up 15 minutes late for a scheduled appointment”, and that “one lady had been sanctioned for attending a funeral. She had informed the authorities of this in advance. And another family were sanctioned for dealing with the police after a burglary in their home during the night.”

Jayne Ozanne (Oxford) revealed that she had been on benefits “sadly to do with my own sexuality and coming out. It was a time when I really needed support and help,” she said.

“I didn’t know the system, and I felt terribly depressed, but also a sense of lack of dignity,” she said. “But what I realised when I was being questioned is that others did know the system, and they knew how to play the system. The system is unfair, and it is most unfair to those who don’t know it well.”

She said that it was time for a “system that is fair and credible for those who need it at a time of need”.

Canon Kate Wharton (Liverpool) said that the current system was “entirely without compassion, flexibility, and humanity”, and that sanctions were “entirely disproportionate to the supposed misdemeanours”.

She continued: “We are the Church. We will continue to help for as long as it is needed. We will provide food and clothing and necessary household items. We will attend meetings. We will advocate on people’s behalf. We will support them financially and emotionally, practically and prayerfully. We will do this. We will do this because it is what Jesus would do.

“But in Britain in 2016 it is simply wrong that we need to do this, and so we must ask questions. We must stand up for those without a voice. We have privilege here at Synod. We can lobby, and agitate, and ask for reviews. Let us use our privilege to advocate for those who do not.”

Elliot Swattridge (C of E Youth Council) spoke of a former soldier who had to become full-time carer for his mother who had dementia. When she moved into care, he sought a job and claimed Jobseeker’s Allowance. “One week he missed an appointment with an adviser. It was probably an honest mistake, but, under the harsh new regime of benefit sanctions, this immediately signalled the axing of his allowance for one month, as a punishment.”

The man had not been able to afford food or electricity, and, on 20 July, had been found dead in his home, having died from diabetes-related causes. He had not been taking insulin: without electricity, his fridge, in which it was stored, wasn’t working.

Mr Swattridge said that it was the “injustice of a deeply broken sanction system that led to his death. . . The system is not just broken: it is cruel and deadly.”

Archdeacon Chamberlain’s amendment was carried.

The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, said that he was convinced that the Church needed to engage with the Government to find a fairer and equitable system. “Christianity spread because of the extraordinary altruism of the Early Church, that was realistic, practical, and responded to plagues, famine, and poverty,” he said. His amendment highlighted the practical work of churches, and called for a much wider engagement, and a “more generous and practical Church” to be alongside the most vulnerable in society.

Canon Fitzsimonssaid that the whole Church should stand behind those who were working in the most difficult parts of the country.

The Revd Catherine Pickford (Newcastle) said she that she would like to see a time when foodbanks were no longer necessary. The system of sanctions had become an arbitrary and dehumanising, punishment for being unemployed, and was pushing huge numbers to depend on charity.

Robin Lunn (Worcester) said that the issue of stigmatisation of people on benefits was not helped by the national media, which highlighted “people who know how to play the system”, and not the plight of those who did not understand it. The Church should counter-attack this, and push for a more efficient and compassionate system. This was where the training was crucial, he said.

Shayne Ardron (Leicester) urged the Church tobuild relationships” so they know the struggles of the vulnerable, and to set up funds for foodbanks. This, she said, tied in with evangelism and fresh expressions.

Peter Adams (St Albans) said that benefits sanctions were the “meanest and nastiest” of the Government’s policies, and that Christians should continue to reach out to all who suffered in the community. “Why are we feeding people who are hungry, for a system that punishes the most vulnerable?” he said.

Sanctions were necessary, but they must be accountable, and look to bring back the core values of Britain, including “justice, transparency, and value for each life”. Surround the foodbanks with credit unions and debt advice to reverse the “destructive cycle”, he urged.

Bishop Smith’s amendment was carried.

Sir Tony Baldry (Oxford) made a “very practical suggestion” that deanery synods should go and see their MP at their constituency surgeries. “Most Members of Parliament would deal with great respect with a delegation from their local deanery synod to talk about the MPA report,” he said.

He encouraged members to ask their MPs to request that the Secretary of State implement a review. Such visits would, he said, result in letters from MPs going to the private office of the Minister which would work to support “further initiatives” being taken by other MPs in the House of Commons.

Heather Black (York), the chair of the Middlesbrough Foodbank, questioned the lack of signposting to hardship-support services for people who were sanctioned. One woman had gone into Greggs and had intended to shoplift a pasty to feed her daughter, but had decided not to do so. When she told somebody about this, she was told about the foodbank.

“We were able to feed her, and also minister to her deep sense of shame and guilt that she was close to resorting to stealing,” she said. “Adequate signposting by the jobcentre” would have prevented the claimant from being in such a position.

Carl Fender (Lincoln) said that there was a “hard-heartedness engendered by the current system” which was demonstrated by “the lack of proportionality and the length of the sanctions”.

Canon Simon Taylor (Derby) said that the number of people in Derbyshire being sanctioned was falling. The motion should not be understood as critical of government policy, he said: “The aim of reducing spending on welfare is to be applauded; but research in Derbyshire shows that this is being undermined by the way sanctions operate.”

This research showed that people were borrowing money, and that a quarter of those sanctioned reported that financial difficulties lasted for six months after the sanction. The Government’s policy on sanctions was counterproductive: “Sanctions are perpetuating and increasing dependency.”

Fenella Cannings-Jurd (Salisbury) spoke of her experiences as a paralegal at a law firm that specialised in child protection. She warned that the sanctions system was “punishing children, families, and their futures”. Children were at risk of being removed from their families as a result of the impact of sanctions.

The motion as amended was carried nem. con. by 320 votes, with two recorded abstentions. It read:


That this Synod:

(a) welcome the extensive work already undertaken by the Church of England in partnership with others to evaluate the impact of benefits sanctioning and to identify and promote recommendations for the reform of sanctions policy and practice;

(b) call on Her Majesty’s Government to implement the recommendations numbered 58-63 inclusive, made in December 2014 by the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Report into Hunger in the UK Feeding Britain in respect of the use of sanctions upon benefit claimants;

(c) call on Her Majesty’s Government to initiate a full independent review of the impact and efficacy of the sanctions and conditionality regime; and

(d) encourage every part of the Church of England to offer practical and pastoral support to those experiencing benefit sanctions, building on the Church’s work with food banks, credit unions and debt advice

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