A coalition of major UK churches, with a combined membership of more than 800,000, has welcomed the call for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions system. The recommendation comes in a report from the Work and Pensions Select Committee, released today (Tuesday).
Earlier this month the churches called for such a review in their report Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions which cited new evidence about the negative impact of the current regime. They revealed that, in 2013/14, nearly seven million weeks of sanctions were handed out to people, with around 100,000 children affected. The data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also shows that people who receive the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a long-term mental health problem are being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day. The most common reason for being sanctioned is being late or not turning up for an appointment.
“The Select Committee Report describes a system that is broken and needs urgent review,” said Paul Morrison, public issues policy adviser for the Methodist Church. “Churches are often at the forefront of helping people who have been sanctioned and who are in desperate need of food, support and advice. It is unacceptable that vulnerable people can be left with no means of support as punishment for often very minor mistakes.
“The people we have met have spoken of the shame, demoralisation and loss of self-worth caused by this system. As Christians we believe that everyone is loved, valued and made in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to challenge any structure or system that undermines that dignity. We hope that whoever forms the next government will treat this issue with the urgency and seriousness it deserves.”
“So far, more than 1,400 people have written to their MPs about sanctions as a result of the campaign,” added Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, “It’s great that people in churches understand how important this issue is. We know that sanctions have a disproportionate impact on those who are most vulnerable: young people, care leavers, homeless people, single parents, the mentally ill and those with long-term illness. The new government must act to ensure that the benefits system provides a safety net for everyone, rather than making people destitute.”
Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions was published by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church and features the stories of people like Sarah* who have had their benefits sanctioned:
Sarah worked as a charity project coordinator until she was laid off a due to funding cuts. She was asked to apply for eight jobs a week, but always applied for more as she was keen to get back to work. One week she was unable to fill out her job search on the computer because there were workmen fixing her roof and she had to stay in the house. Instead she filled out her search in a booklet. She contacted the jobcentre to explain, and ask if they needed any proof to support the booklet as she had emails from prospective employers and had even attended interviews. They said they didn’t need anything from her.
When Sarah went to collect her money she was told she had been sanctioned. However, she did not receive the letter telling her she had been sanctioned so was unable to apply for discretionary funds to help support her and her family. Sarah successfully appealed the decision, though she says that Jobcentre Plus staff repeatedly tried to discourage her from doing so.
“Usually I’m quite a confident person, but they crush you. I found the experience at the Jobcentre Plus so awful I’d rather starve than go back there again. They should properly train the people in the job centre to treat us like people …That whole attitude that people are scroungers is terrible, there’s just no respect.”
The Department for Work and Pensions has failed to respond to a further FOI request regarding whether sanctions make it easier for the DWP to achieve its targets. This is despite the fact that the Information Commissioner’s Office ordered the DWP to respond by 15 March.
*Not her real name.
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