Hundreds of people have contacted their MP about Benefit Sanctions. Some of the replies have been positive. The replies which have been less positive have used a shared set of arguments. Below are the arguments used in support of the sanctions regime and our response to them. We hope this may help you in replying to your MP and continuing to challenge the unjust Benefit Sanction regime.
1. It is important to have a system based on fairness. Claimants have a responsibility to do everything they can to get back into work.
Claimants – just like those in work – have both rights and responsibilities and no-one questions this. What we are questioning is the fairness and effectiveness of the sanctions system in policing these rights and responsibilities.
For example those of us who are employed would probably not accept having our salary stopped for a month because we did not meet our weekly performance targets. A benefit claimant who is judged to have not applied for the correct number of jobs will lose their benefits for a month. It seems grossly unfair to hold claimants up to higher standards than we would expect of others.
2. “Sanctions are only used for a “tiny minority”
18% of Jobseekers were sanctioned last year, 22% over the past 5 years. In a single year over 1 million people were sanctioned. The sanctions regime punishes more people than the Magistrate’s and Sheriffs court systems combined. The numbers are often played down by quoting monthly rather than annual rates (in the same way as a payday lender would) but by any reasonable estimation the sanctions regime is huge.
3. The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) does not recognise the figure that
100,000 children were affected by sanctions.
This is the Department for Work and Pension’s own figure obtained from them via a freedom of information request. It does not include the sizable number of children whose families were sanctioned and later won back their benefits via appeal. The fact that the sanctions regime affects so many children is troubling – we do not believe that the failing to recognise your own evidence, as the DWP is doing, is an appropriate response to troubling facts.
4. People sanctioned who are in genuine need are able to apply for hardship payments.
Most people who are sanctioned are not permitted to apply for a hardship payment for the first two weeks of a sanction – even if they are able to demonstrate genuine need.
The DWP acknowledges this is likely to lead to “a deterioration in health” but states that this is necessary in order to maintain the “deterrent effect of sanctions”. Foodbanks have become vital for such people who are barred from support, regardless of their needs.
For all people sanctioned the definition of genuine need is extremely tight. For example claimants must demonstrate they have no resources to meet basic need and have considered charities, foodbanks and borrowing from friends and family as alternate sources of help. It is important to note that hardship payments are gradually becoming hardship loans.
5. Sanctions are used as a last resort.
A reasonable person may view the phrase “a last resort” as meaning other options have been explored and that a number of attempts have been made to challenge a claimant’s behaviour before sanctions are used. This is not the DWP’s understanding of the phrase. When asked to explain the policy the Department replied
“DWP uses the term ‘last resort’ in reference to the fact that there are many safeguards in place to prevent sanctions being inappropriately applied”.
The Department’s policy is that claimants should be referred for a sanction “first-time every time” if they are judged to have breached the detailed conditions set out in a document called a Claimant Commitment. The experience of claimants, foodbanks as well as testimony from Jobcentre workers is that sanctions are not used as a last resort but instead are readily given out for minor infractions.
6. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) does not sanction vulnerable claimants – such as those with learning difficulties or mental health conditions without making every effort to contact them, their carer, or their healthcare professional first.
We have heard repeated testimony that for many people the first they know about a sanction is when they go to the cash machine to find the money has not entered their account.
It is important to note that it is accepted that large numbers of vulnerable people have their benefit removed because of sanction. Each day 100 people who are unfit for work because of mental health conditions have their sickness or disability benefit sanctioned. The question is not about how hard the DWP attempts to contact people or their carers but the justice of the widespread removal of vulnerable people’s benefits.
7. The decision to impose a sanction is taken by an independent decision maker, and everyone is made aware of their right to appeal. Claimants have every opportunity to present additional evidence.
The Department for Work and Pensions directly or indirectly employs all those who refer people for a sanction as well as all those who make the decision to sanction and all their managers. The decision maker will not meet the claimant and will probably not talk to the claimant. Decisions are made on the balance of probabilities and the maximum value of benefit loss that can be imposed by a decision maker is over £10,000.
The immediate right of appeal to the independent tribunal service has been removed and claimants must first undergo internal procedures to challenge a sanctions decision. These processes are time limited and must be completed while the family is undergoing the sanction or the right to appeal is lost. Many give up challenging the decision in order to focus on the immediate problem of surviving the sanction period.
Even if an appeal is upheld, this is often too late for some people who are already forced into the situation of having to turn to friends, families or foodbanks in order to feed themselves or their families. Others end up getting into debt, a situation they cannot get out of even if the sanction is eventually overturned.
8. Benefit sanctions are not new: they have existed for decades to encourage people to engage with the support being offered.
Before 1997 when an unemployed person didn’t meet a condition for claiming benefit, such as actively seeking work, they were removed from the benefit roll and payment stopped. As soon as they started looking for work again they could reapply for benefit.
A sanction is very different – it a deliberate punishment removing benefit for a fixed period of time, usually a month. People who are sanctioned although they are not receiving any money must continue to obey the Jobcentre by doing things, such as applying for jobs or attending courses, or face further punishments. This principle was extended to some sick and disabled claimants in 2007.
Over the past 5 years however the sanctions regime has been applied more vigorously and since 2012 the duration of sanctions has increased enormously. It is disturbing that a benefit system intended to provide for the needy and vulnerable is now effectively used as a means of coercion and compliance.
And finally – Has the MP said if he supports our call for an independent inquiry into Benefit Sanctions?
In any response it is important to ask the question:
Do you support the call of many churches charities and the DWP Select Committee for a full independent inquiry into benefit sanctions?