Indiscriminate and insensitive use of benefit sanctions needs to be tackled by Liberal Democrat ministers

This article first appeared on Liberal Democrat Voice.

I came across this article about some of the circumstances which had led to sanctions being imposed on benefit claimants. Everything in the article is sourced, but I also take it seriously because it resonates with real life examples that I have heard about.

The coalition has dramatically increased the scale of withdrawal of benefit for infringing rules. A claimant can be sanctioned for not apparently looking hard enough for work, for not attending job centre interviews or for turning down job offers. The minimum period you can lose your benefit for is 4 weeks. You get nothing for a month if you are a few minutes late for an appointment at the job centre. Surely that is disproportionate. It’s a very all or nothing approach – the smallest sanction that can be applied is losing all your money for a month. How does that help encourage effective job search. It’s not easy to perform well at an interview if you are hungry. Bear in mind, also, that the maximum help you can get from a food bank is 3 days’ worth of food, 3 times a year.

So, here are some examples from the article of how these penalties are imposed:

You get a job interview. It’s at the same time as your job centre appointment, so you reschedule the job centre. You attend your rearranged appointment and then get a letter saying your benefits will be stopped because going to a job interview isn’t a good enough reason to miss an appointment.

You’ve signed in on time, been to interviews and applied for work. Your job centre advisor suggests you make a two-line change to your CV, which you do, but fail to give the updated CV to the job centre (you weren’t told you had to). You are sanctioned for four weeks.

You are forced to retire due to a heart condition, and you claim Employment and Support Allowance. During your assessment you have a heart attack. You are sanctioned for not completing your assessment.

You miss your job centre appointment as it clashes with your work programme interview. You get sanctioned.

Have a look at some of the rest. Some of them are clearly unreasonable. When I shared this on Facebook, a friend of mine posted their own example which I’m reproducing with their permission:

My daughter who has learning difficulties phoned her training provider to say she had no money for her bus fares which cost £7.50 as we had gone out for the day and she couldn’t borrow it from anyone else. She was sanctioned for four weeks. That four weeks we had to pay for all her expenses and food being OAP’s we can’t afford to do this.

These people live in a small village so please don’t suggest that it might have been possible for her to walk several miles on a road with no pavement to the placement in the nearest town. Also bear in mind that with the bus fares at £7.50 per day, that’s over half her JSA of £72.

The fact that over half of sanctions are overturned on appeal is proof that the wrong decisions are being made too often. The knock-on effect is unnecessary stress and time wasted on preparing an appeal that could be used to apply for jobs, but that’s beside the point. We shouldn’t be treating people in a clearly inhumane way. How can anybody have confidence in a system that is so clearly being abused. Of course some sort of sanctions regime is necessary, but it needs to be used with sensitivity and fairness.

In fairness to the DWP, if you read their Decision Maker’s Guidance on sanctions, it is actually quite reasonable. It’s hard to imagine that anybody who’s read it would have imposed a sanction in any of the cases outlined above. The problem, therefore, lies with inflexible and insensitive implantation. DWP staff on the ground are exercising poor judgment. It’s surely time for these decisions to be analysed and if they fall short of being reasonable, then disciplinary action needs to be taken on the staff and managers responsible.

If someone is sanctioned and they feel it is unfair they should do the following:

1) Ask for a full statement of the reasons for the sanction being applied and ask for the decision to be reconsidered.

2) If that doesn’t have it lifted, appeal. Go to the Citizens’ Advice Bureau for help.

3) Claim a hardship payment. There is some anecdotal evidence that claimants are being told by the job centre staff that they cannot do so but they can. They’ll still have to wait two weeks for it, though.

4) Tell their MP. They need to have real world examples of the flaws so that they can put pressure on ministers to do something.

The Citizens’ Advice Bureau website has more information.

And it’s important that this is sorted soon. In February Inside Housing reported that the DWP will sanction those in part time work for not looking hard enough for full time work. Private sector landlords are already worried about offering tenancies to people on benefits when the Universal Credit comes in and the Housing Benefit is paid directly to the tenant. The last thing we need is for there to be fewer homes available for the poorest.

However, when the Universal Credit is fully implemented, the sanctions regime will become more flexible. The pressing question is why wait for that to happen? Why not make those changes now? The Citizens’ Advice Bureau called for precisely that last week, saying:

People need a system that can take into account their situation, set suitable work search requirements and where necessary apply sanctions at a level that won’t limit their chances of employment.  Whilst it is vital that people receiving taxpayers’ support do their utmost to find work, the model needs to work and not make it harder for claimants to find a job.

To date, Work Programme contractors have been responsible for twice as many sanctions on the people referred to them as they have successfully helped people find work. Combined with Citizens Advice’s latest figures this paints the strongest picture yet that the system is not working as it should.

I would expect Liberal Democrat ministers within the coalition to be making these points clearly and arguing for change. The current situation is causing misery and costing money.

About caronlindsay

Scottish Lib Dem internationalist, mum, LGBT+ ally, Doctor Who, Strictly, F1 and trashy tv addict and blogger. Servant to two spaniels. She/her.
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