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Letter: Deliberately blind to the failures of the sanctions regime?

Date published: 31 December 2016


Dear Editor,

If you commit a crime, no criminal court in the UK is allowed to make you go hungry as a punishment, but if you’re late for an appointment at the Jobcentre, they can remove all your income and leave you unable to feed yourself or your family for weeks at a time.

Britain's Welfare System is badly broken. There are thousands upon thousands of recorded narratives of the severe damage sanctions do to our fellow citizens in the UK.

One man sanctioned described his experience: 'During the first three weeks of my sanction I continued to look for work as I was required to. By the fourth week however I was exhausted, unwell and no longer had it in me. I was not eating as I had no food and was losing a lot of weight. I told the Jobcentre I was unwell through not eating but was sanctioned for another three months for not looking for work properly'.

Last year DWP sanctions affected 100,000 children in the UK, what crime have they committed as children to face 'collective punishment' to be made hungry by the State as a punishment for the actions of their parents?

As writer Stephen Armstrong points out in 'The Road to Wigan Pier | Revisited’: "Benefit sanctions were worse in Rochdale, Charles explained. There you'd get sanctioned for one mistake. At least in Manchester it was usually three strikes and you’re out, 'but it's always the older ones who knew the score', he grinned ruefully. 'They know the scams and the forms, and what you have to do. They've got mates behind the counter. It's always the younger ones or the new ones who've never signed on, who get it wrong and gets sanctioned. 'If you’re a proper benefit family you know how to play the system'. From his £35 the hostel took £10, leaving him £25 for everything else. When the money came through he'd head down to Iceland and stock up, but usually he budgeted for £5 food, it wasn't quite enough to last the week'."

It must be becoming clear by now to everybody that something is very wrong with the DWP sanctions regime. If we also consider that unemployment continues to rise locally whilst we have at the exact same time one of the highest sanctions or conditionality rates in Greater Manchester we must reach the conclusion that even if we accepted the brutal and questionable morality of such a sanctions regime we cannot even claim the process reduces unemployment levels. And as of course we all know by now financially the whole 'conditionality' scheme costs the taxpayer far more to implement than it has ever saved the public purse.

It now seems clear that even Christmas proves no protection for the vulnerable and needy reliant on benefits to survive.

A Department for Work and Pensions whistleblower has told how mean-spirited bosses have demanded DWP staff focus solely on handing out benefit sanctions over Christmas rather than sorting out appeals.

Hundreds of staff at the Northgate DWP centre in Glasgow have allegedly been asked to only give out sanctions until 9 January and not to process mandatory reconsiderations, where a claimant has asked for a decision, such as a sanction, to be looked at again, until 2017.

Anne McLaughlin MP, whose constituency of Glasgow North includes the centre, has asked Work and Pensions Secretary Damian Green to explain the reasoning behind the cruel guidance and called for all benefit sanctions to be halted at Christmas time.

Anne McLaughlin MP said: “I have never heard anything so mean-spirited in my life and I am absolutely gobsmacked by the callousness of the directions being given to DWP staff just before Christmas.

“Nobody should have to endure the misery of having their benefits stopped at Christmas let alone face an increase in the likelihood of a sanction.

“For someone struggling to make ends meet, Christmas is always going to be a difficult time with lots of added financial pressure such as presents, festive activities and food but if a person is sanctioned in December they will be left with absolutely nothing, unless they can face going to the local foodbank.

“For someone to have their benefits stripped from them is bad enough but at this time of year it is truly wicked, they won’t be able to take their kids to see the Christmas lights because they won’t have the bus fare.”

Even Ebenezer Scrooge eventually saw the error of his ways by Christmas Day, the DWP alone apparently remain unmoved by the Christian message of peace and goodwill to all at the heart of Christmas festivities.

The Government claims that benefit sanctions improve people's employment prospects, but a recent report from the National Audit Office (NAO) showed that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has no direct evidence for the effectiveness of sanctions, has failed to analyse the data it holds about sanctions, and has refused to share data with other researchers or assist those researchers.

The DWP made itself deliberately blind to the failures of the sanctions regime, but the harm these sanctions cause is well known. In 2015, the report Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions revealed that 100,000 children were affected by benefit sanctions in one year. The National Audit Office now tells us that, on average, these sanctions reduced people’s short, and long-term job prospects, and led to reduced earnings for those who got work.

It is an outrage that harsh punishments are given to people in already difficult circumstances without proper investigation of the consequences. The National Audit Office and many other government, charity, church and parliamentary bodies have now called for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions regime. I asked my MP to contact the DWP and ask them to launch that review.

Could concerned readers of Rochdale Online who are concerned about the current sanctions 'regime' please do the same since Rochdale has one of the highest levels of DWP sanctions in the whole of Greater Manchester. This can be done in a few minutes at the Church Action on Poverty site at:

https://churchpoverty.e-activist.com/page/4335/action/1?ea.tracking.id=multiplier

Thank you.

Yours,

Andrew Wastling

The views expressed are those of the author of the letter and not those of Rochdale Online.


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