Minister: ‘We don’t warn social workers when vulnerable claimants are sanctioned’


newslatestA minister has admitted that it is not government policy to warn health or social services when “vulnerable” service-users have had their benefits “sanctioned”.

The admission by the Conservative employment minister Esther McVey comes just weeks after her department admitted to Disability News Service (DNS) that it had carried out 60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.

McVey was responding to a written parliamentary question from Labour’s shadow employment minister, Stephen Timms.

Timms asked whether it was Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) policy that Jobcentre Plus officials should “liaise with health and social services agencies when benefit sanctions are applied to vulnerable individuals”.

But McVey replied: “There is no formal policy to liaise with health and social services agencies when a sanction is applied.”

She said DWP “recognises the importance of ensuring claimants understand the requirements they must fulfil to get benefit, the consequences of not complying and support available when sanctioned, including reconsideration, appeal and hardship payments”.

She added: “As part of this, work coaches also encourage claimants to engage third party support where this is available.”

A key element of the coalition’s welfare reforms has been to introduce a stricter sanctions regime.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative work and pensions secretary, said in February that he was “ending the something for nothing culture and supporting those who want to work hard and play by the rules”.

But ministers have consistently denied any connection between their welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of benefit claimants.

There have been numerous reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked by relatives and friends to the employment and support allowance (ESA) claim process, the refusal or removal of ESA and other benefits, and the DWP’s use of sanctions to temporarily remove benefits from a claimant.

One notorious case was that of David Clapson, who was sanctioned because he missed two DWP appointments.

Even though he was actively looking for work at the time, his benefits were stopped.

Clapson, who had diabetes, died through an acute lack of insulin. His electricity had been cut off, so the fridge where he kept his insulin was not working.

An autopsy found his stomach was empty at the time of his death. He had just £3.44 in his bank account and there was almost no food left in the flat.

Catherine Hale, the author of a review which found that the back-to-work support provided to disabled people by the government actually pushes them further from the jobs market, said: “This revelation makes a mockery of the government’s claim that sanctions policy is intended to move people into work for their own wellbeing.

“This government will stop at nothing to cut public spending, as long as its core voters don’t notice that their fellow citizens are being cast out to destitution and sometimes death. The sanctions regime shames our whole society.”

Hale had more than £70 a week of her ESA stripped from her for three months because she could not attend a Seetec back-to-work workshop that a government assessment had already concluded would be inaccessible to her.

Bob Ellard, a member of the Disabled People Against Cuts steering group, said McVey’s response was “appallingly callous”.

He said: “It appears that in Esther McVey’s world, people who have no economic value have no value at all.

“We don’t have a death penalty for even the most heinous crime in this country, but Esther McVey’s officials handed out what turned out to be a death penalty to David Clapson, for the ‘crime’ of missing two appointments.

“Benefit sanctions are an abuse of human rights, and will be the cause of more deaths and suicides. Sanctions must be stopped.”

And John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said Clapson’s treatment at the hands of DWP was a violation of his right to life under article two of the European Convention on Human Rights, and article 14, which prohibits discrimination.

He said DWP’s failure to contact the necessary people within health or social services when a vulnerable disabled person had their benefits sanctioned “amounts to passive euthanasia”.

He said the state had put Clapson in the position where he was unable to use the medication he needed to stay alive and had “failed to carry out its duty of care”.

Last month, DNS reported that the use of sanctions to punish disabled ESA claimants had risen by 370 per cent in just 18 months, from 1,091 in December 2012 to 5,132 in June 2014.

About nine in 10 sanctions were for a failure to participate in work-related activity, with the others imposed for a failure to attend a mandatory interview.

Claimants lose at least a week’s benefit for missing a single appointment or session of work-related activity.

4 December 2014