Original post from The Morning Star


Two different freedom of information requests have exposed the shocking toll of benefits sanctions on the lives of Britain’s most vulnerable, writes ANITA BELLOWS

SANCTIONS have been a feature of the welfare system since 1913, but in the past were applied in a narrow set of circumstances (such as dismissal for misconduct or voluntarily leaving a job).

They certainly did not extend to certain groups of people, particularly those one would expect to be protected against deliberate hardship and deprivation inflicted by one of the world’s richest nations.

Benefits sanctions have been the subject of many studies, although always viewed through the same prism: do they “help” jobless people move into work? Few studies have focused purely on the negative impact of sanctions, which is always fleetingly mentioned, although a 2002 one into the impact of welfare sanctions on the health of infants and toddlers in the US clearly shows a link between sanctions and a 30 per cent rise in hospitalisation of infants and toddlers. It also shows a 30 per cent higher risk of malnutrition at a critical age.

A 2013 Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau Service study called Punishing Poverty? reviews benefits sanctions and their effects on British clients and claimants. It details the severe impact of sanctions on the mental and physical health of many claimants, whose existing health conditions were exacerbated because of poor diet and stress. Some said they had attempted suicide or that they felt suicidal.

So it is unsurprising to learn, from information released following my freedom of information request, that of the 49 benefit claimants’ deaths (40 of which were suicides) peer reviewed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), 10 claimants were at the time of their deaths sanctioned or had been sanctioned during the duration of their benefits claim.

And a freedom of information request made by Natalie Leal has just revealed that of those 49 peer reviewed benefit claimant deaths, 22 were claiming a disability related benefit.

One of the groups specifically targeted by sanctions since the Welfare Act 2007 is disabled people, and sanctions for this group have tripled over the past year, reaching 3,000 sanctions per month.

Because of the DWP’s reluctance to release information (in spite of repeated freedom of information requests), it is not possible to ascertain whether the claimants who committed suicide belonged to this group, but what we do know from the DWP’s own statistics is that people with mental health conditions or learning difficulties are disproportionally sanctioned.

They are seen as soft targets, having the greatest difficulty navigating a system geared to trip them up. They are also the claimants least likely to cope with stress and pressure.

But the number of sanctions applied does not reflect the real scale of hardship and deprivation caused to claimants through sanctions. Because of DWP targets or implicit expectations and indiscriminate sanctioning, the number of claimants referred for sanctions has rocketed, and around half of them manage to successfully challenge a sanction decision and have their benefits reinstated. But they have to wait for up to one-and-a-half years for this to happen and survive in the meantime without any income, regardless of whether they are disabled, lone parents or unemployed.

And while claimants might be entitled to hardship payments — particularly if they can show that they are, or have, a family member who is vulnerable — these payments are only 60 per cent of the benefit usually payable and anedoctal evidence suggests that they are awarded sparingly.

This was confirmed by the Scottish Parliament’s welfare reform committee in a letter addressed to then employment minister Esther McVey in October 2014: “We believe that a weakness in the current system is a failure to make those who are sanctioned aware of the availability of hardship payments, resulting in few claimants receiving payments.”

This fits in with the only set of hardship payment figures available, published in 2012, which show that only 64,000 awards were made between April 2011 and March 2012, representing about 10 per cent of the number of sanctions applied during this period.

During the last work and pensions committee inquiry on sanctions in February 2015, the government made a commitment to publish these figures in May 2015, but has failed to do so.

It is also interesting to try to understand why the DWP started monitoring benefit claimant suicides in 2012. One particular internal DWP memo throws some light on this. It was sent to all DWP staff in operations by head of contact centres Paul Archer, head of benefit centres Mike Baker and work service director Paul Williams on April 25 2012, during the first month of delivery of employment and support allowance (ESA). This was the phase when decisions were made on revised benefits entitlement (a coded expression for cutting benefits).

The memo stated: “The complex nature of our business, however, means that sometimes, while procedures are followed correctly, something goes wrong. The consequences of getting this wrong can have profound results. Very sadly, only last week a customer of DWP attempted suicide, said to be the result of receiving a letter informing him that due to the introduction of time-limiting contribution-based ESA for people not in the support group, his contribution-based ESA was going to stop.”

So within the first month of implementing changes leading to benefit loss for people claiming contributory-based ESA and who had already been assessed as disabled and entitled to ESA, the DWP encountered its first suicide attempt. The main recommendation of the memo is to improve communications. And of course, nobody knows the number of benefit claimants, sanctioned or not, who have attempted to commit suicide.

Likewise nobody knows how many benefit claimants like diabetic former soldier David Clapson died because of sanctions, although he did not commit suicide but instead perished from a lack of insulin. Some cases capture the public imagination and make headlines, while many others are lucky to get one line in a local paper, and DWP does not appear to monitor the consequences of its policies.

What is clear is that the social security system which used to exist and which was based on social redistributive justice, to which each contributed according to their means and abilities and which was supposed to support everybody according to their needs, has turned into a monster.

Food deprivation and health decline, deaths and ultimately suicides are not aberrations but an intrinsic part of a punitive regime, which uses sanctions as a weapon in order to force compliance on some groups of people who have come to be seen as a financial burden on society.

The fact that there is so little evidence of the effectiveness of sanctions and that their use against claimants and deaths and suicides are so widely accepted by the British public should be a warning sign.

While the state’s intention was always to reduce the support hitherto awarded to people who needed it, in trying to make these cuts acceptable, the state has unleashed an unstoppable evil force looking for scapegoats. And by institutionalising violence against people in need of support, the state has knowingly driven them to their deaths.

  • Anita Bellows is a member of Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC). For more information see  …….’