DWP’s Benefit Sanctions

A public health disaster

The DWP’s benefit sanctions have become a serious threat to public health – and health professionals should become engaged in exposing their effects and pressing for their abolition.

Like any insurance scheme, unemployment benefit has always had qualifying conditions. For most of the time up to 1986 there were few disqualifications, except for a ban of up to 6 weeks where people left a job voluntarily or lost it without good reason. But since 1986 there has been a growth of ‘sanctions’ – fines administered by officials to make claimants do particular things which the state, often very disputably, claims are a good idea, such as applying for 30 jobs a fortnight.

Under the Coalition, JSA and ESA sanctions have almost doubled, to 1.1m per year, affecting about 0.7m people. More than one fifth of all JSA claimants are now sanctioned over any 5-year period. JSA sanctions are running at 7% of claimants per month, and twice this for people aged 18-24; ESA sanctions are rising rapidly and are now close to 1.5% per month. Lone parents on Income Support have also been sanctioned since 2001, though since 2008 they have been moved progressively to JSA where 4% are sanctioned per month.

All the commonest JSA sanctions have been lengthened since October 2012. The minimum period is now 4 weeks, with 13 weeks for a second ‘failure’. There are now 3-year sanctions for repeat ‘high level’ ‘failures’, which have already hit over 1,000 JSA claimants. Since December 2012, sanctioned ESA claimants have lost all of their personal allowance, instead of the much smaller ‘work related activity’ component.

Prior to 1988, disqualified claimants were entitled to Supplementary Benefit as of right at a reduced rate, on the normal criteria. Since then (1996 for those on contributory benefit), sanctioned claimants have been eligible only for discretionary ‘hardship payments’. This system, devised by Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley, involves a special, harsh test designed to ensure that the claimant is entirely cleaned out of resources. For instance there is no payment if the claimant has borrowed cash from a payday lender. There is a two-week wait before claimants, however destitute, can even apply, except for arbitrarily defined ‘vulnerable’ groups. Ministers and officials know that this system damages people’s health. As to whether a claimant’s health condition makes them ‘vulnerable’, the DWP’s Decision Maker’s Guide devotes 52 pages to the question:  Will this claimant’s health decline more than a normal person’s would ?  Less than a quarter of sanctioned claimants get hardship payments, and the separate application process and deficiencies in the DWP’s administration mean that they are frequently not paid even to those entitled. Under Universal Credit, hardship payments will become loans, and the rules even stricter.

Although the money lost through sanctions is greater than in the scale of fines available to the courts, benefit claimants do not have the protections given to offenders. There is no consideration of their circumstances before a sanction is imposed, and no legal representation. Official studies have shown that claimants find the appeal system too difficult to use. In 2013 only 31% asked for reconsideration by the DWP and only 3% appealed to an independent tribunal. Consequently, huge numbers of unreasonable and unlawful sanctions go unchallenged.

There has never been any specific study of the impact of sanctions on health, but from official studies, reports by voluntary organizations, and claimants’ own stories, there is a large volume of evidence of effects which are known to damage health. Conditions such as depression, irritable bowel syndrome and diabetes are worsened. The death from diabetic ketoacidosis in July of a claimant from Stevenage, David Clapson,  has been reliably attributed to a JSA sanction which meant he couldn’t afford to keep his fridge going. Hunger, cold, damage to family relationships, debt, homelessness, crime (including ‘survival theft’ and violence) and disempowerment are all predictable consequences of the total loss of income, and all have been extensively documented. About a quarter of sanctioned claimants use Food Banks, and a similar proportion of Food Bank users are sanctioned claimants. By contrast, there is no satisfactory evidence that sanctions do more than drive people off benefits, or at best into bad and unsustainable jobs, and even the OECD – long an advocate for sanctions – agrees that to achieve even these limited effects, sanctions do not have to be anything like as harsh as they are in the UK.

Recently (3/4/2014), the House of Commons agreed a resolution moved by Michael Meacher MP: “this House notes that there have been many cases of sanctions being wrongfully applied to benefit recipients; and calls on the Government to review the targeting, severity and impact of such sanctions.” This added to calls for a comprehensive inquiry from many quarters, in particular the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. 

A limited review (the Oakley review) was earlier conceded by the Coalition and reported on 22 July.  It elicited a great deal of evidence on the working of the sanctions regime, some of which can be found on the Child Poverty Action Group website . However it was given very restricted terms of reference, and although the Coalition says it has accepted all the recommendations, in practice it hasn’t. Consequently, although some useful reforms are taking place, most of the problems in the sanctions system are being left untouched, and the need for a comprehensive independent inquiry remains.

Fundamental change is required. The UK sanctions regime is incompatible with the UN Principles on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, which require governments to ensure adequate food and to recognise poor people as free and autonomous agents. As the Scottish Parliament’s Welfare Reform Committee has asserted, the culture needs to change from punitive to supportive. And no one should be made destitute by sanctions or disallowances.