Sanctions: where's the support?

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It’s all change at Westminster – once again. After five years dominated by the pace and scale of change to the social security system, the new Parliament promises some more pretty big changes, many of which were discussed in this week’s Welfare Reform & Work Bill debate.

But some things never seem to change.

During Work and Pensions Questions in the House of Commons recently, questions were asked about the impact of benefit sanctions on foodbank use. The new Minister for Employment, Priti Patel, responded by saying that the government “agree[s] with the conclusion reached by the all-party parliamentary inquiry into hunger that the reasons for food bank use are complex and overlapping. There is no robust evidence that directly links sanctions and food bank use.

CPAG provided evidence to the All-Party Parliamentary inquiry in 2014, based in large part on our experiences of advising users of Tower Hamlets Foodbank. Whilst it is true that the reasons for foodbank use are complex, we also said that the “more stringent sanctions regime introduced from last year is a significant driver of food bank use – an estimated third of clients seen in Tower Hamlets are subject to sanctions.” This was one of the findings of our report, produced with other charities, Emergency Use Only, which made some recommendations to improve the situation for sanctioned claimants.

When pressed on the issue, Ms Patel went on to say she could “assure the House that for those in genuine need, hardship payments are on offer, as is support for those who have been sanctioned. Support is there for those who can demonstrate that they require financial assistance to buy essential items. It is absolutely right that in our jobcentres and in the interactions with claimants, we give them the right sort of support, guidance and advice, and I assure the hon. Lady that that does take place.” Based on our day to day work with foodbank clients, we sadly haven’t seen these levels of support borne out in practice.

One recent client came into a foodbank outlet absolutely destitute and at his wits' end. He’d had over 20 consecutive referrals for sanction decisions to be applied to his jobseeker’s allowance since the beginning of the year. Further investigation established that these all related to failure to attend Work Programme appointments. The client explained that his adviser had ordered him to undertake work-related activity that he couldn’t manage and they’d argued as a result, leaving our client feeling scared and intimidated.

Despite the safeguards and support the sanctions system is supposed to provide, this situation was allowed to continue without any enquiry from DWP or the Work Programme provider. Why didn’t someone think to, at the very least, try and speak to our client and resolve what was obviously a broken relationship? Thankfully, following our intervention, we were able to get the sanction decisions overturned and benefit payments reinstated.

In another case, I’m helping a client to challenge a sanction imposed because he lost his job due to “misconduct”. It appears his “misconduct” was to complain that he wasn’t given access to a toilet at work and he is taking the case to an employment tribunal. Before the tribunal can make a decision, his jobseeker’s allowance has been sanctioned for 13 weeks and he isn’t eligible for a hardship payment for the first 14 days.  We’re helping him challenge the decision and we’re confident that we can get this overturned, but in the meantime he is penniless and relying on the foodbank to eat. Where’s the promised support and guidance here?

As advisors who see these cases all the time, we have many suggestions for how small tweaks could make the system more humane and prevent these kind of egregious cases arising. For instance, why not make decisions about hardship payments at the same time as a sanction decision is going to be made, rather than requiring someone to wait for the decision before they can even start that process? Why not insist on a face-to-face meeting to discuss prospective sanction decisions being taken, so that people have a chance to explain what’s actually happened?

It wouldn’t take much to prevent needless suffering and make sure the social security system serves its purpose better – helping those who can to find work and supporting and protecting those who can’t.