A benefit claimant left a disabled peer in tears after describing to a parliamentary meeting how the application of the government’s brutal sanctions regime by a jobcentre adviser had left him so desperate that he attempted to take his own life.
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson was chairing the meeting, which was held to launch a new report into the government’s “perverse and punitive” regime of benefit sanctions and conditions.
Academics at the University of Essex, in partnership with the disabled people’s organisation Inclusion London, had spent two years investigating the employment and support allowance (ESA) system, and particularly those claimants placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG), for those supposed to move gradually towards paid work.
Their research concluded that the system of sanctions and conditions imposed on disabled people placed in the WRAG – who can see all their benefits cut for weeks if they fail to carry out certain activities to the satisfaction of their jobcentre adviser – has a “significantly detrimental” effect on their mental health.
Researchers told the meeting that this approach was “psychologically toxic”, intellectually “incoherent”, counter-productive and “arbitrary”, and that it “rendered people into a state of almost constant anxiety”.
DWP’s approach is supposed to nudge disabled people in the WRAG towards work.
But the 15 participants in the study – all current or recent ESA WRAG claimants – instead told the researchers how the “perverse and punitive” conditions imposed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) undermined their self-confidence.
The report, Where Your Mental Health Just Disappears Overnight, says the impact of sanctions has been “life-threatening” for some of those in the WRAG.
It adds: “The underlying fear instilled by the threat of sanctions meant that many participants described living in a state of constant anxiety.”
While those taking part in the study wanted to engage in work and vocational activity, their presence in the WRAG forced them into less meaningful tasks, and even to understate their previous achievements on their CVs.
Ellen Clifford, Inclusion London’s campaigns and policy manager and a co-author of the report, told the meeting that she feared the continuing roll-out of the government’s new universal credit benefit system would “further entrench the conditionality approach”.
She said DWP’s “direction of travel is towards more conditionality and more sanctions”, which was “one of the key reasons disabled campaigners feel universal credit needs to be scrapped”.
One of the 15 WRAG claimants who took part in the research, Andy Mitchell, from Somerset, explained to the meeting how DWP had told him he would have his benefits sanctioned if he did not remove his degree from his CV.
But Mitchell also described how the system of unfair sanctions had left him penniless and had driven him to despair and a suicide attempt.
He had been claiming the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance for just four months after a redundancy when a jobcentre adviser arranged for him to attend a business start-up course, paid for by DWP.
But when he returned from the two-week course – with “loads of ideas” for starting a small baking business – a new adviser told him he should have been carrying out job-search activity while he was on the course… and handed him a sanction.
His benefits were stopped immediately, but he was unable to confirm with DWP that he had been sanctioned, and so could not apply for a hardship payment.
When his payments suddenly stopped, and with just £5 left, his pre-payment electricity soon ran out, as did his food, and he soon had to survive by helping himself to free fruit at the job club he attended, visiting the centre every day just so he had something to eat.
His physical and mental health began to deteriorate, he couldn’t even afford toilet paper to clean himself, and as Christmas approached he was no longer well enough to leave the house to carry out the work activities DWP was telling him he needed to complete.
On Christmas Day, he sat in his house all day waiting for it to get dark so he could go to bed, trying to ignore the families he could see through his window enjoying the festivities.
He was only able to switch the electricity back on after Christmas when an aunt sent him £20 as a birthday and Christmas present.
When he returned to the jobcentre after the Christmas break, the same adviser who had sanctioned him told him his sanction had shown her that he did not have a work ethic, even though he had worked all his life from the age of 16 until he had been made redundant.
He left the jobcentre, went home and attempted to take his own life.
Because of the impact of the sanctions regime on his mental health, he was eventually moved into the ESA WRAG.
After he finished speaking, Baroness Grey-Thompson struggled to speak as she wiped tears from her eyes and told him: “More people need to listen and understand the harsh reality.
“This is why something needs to change.”
The co-leader of the Green party, Jonathan Bartley, was even more outspoken, telling the meeting that the system of sanctions and conditions imposed on disabled people, and Mitchell’s experience, was “a fucking disgrace”.
He gave his “whole-hearted support” to the report and said his party would be “spreading this report as far and wide as we can”.
He said: “One of the things I love about this report is that it breaks through the noise and tells the stories that need to be told.
“Our vision is about a welfare system that liberates, empowers, facilitates, not something to be ashamed of but to be as proud of as we are of the NHS.”
He said his party would scrap sanctions, and pilot a universal basic income system, with top-ups for Deaf and disabled people who needed extra support.
Dr Danny Taggart, a lecturer in clinical psychology and co-author of the report, said the idea that the WRAG regime of sanctions and conditions would help nudge disabled people towards paid work “just isn’t good science”.
Instead, he said, the “perverse and punitive” incentives “rendered people into a state of almost constant anxiety”, with some talking of how the fear of sanctions cast a shadow over every aspect of their lives.
In some cases, he said, the impact of sanctions was life-threatening.
He told the meeting: “A number of participants described a quite rapid deterioration of their mental health as a result of sanctions.”
One of them told the researchers: “I feel as if someone has put a knife through my stomach.”
Taggart said: “More research needs to be undertaken to understand how to best support disabled people into meaningful vocational activity, something that both the government and a majority of disabled people want.
“This study adds further evidence to support any future research being undertaken in collaboration with disabled people’s organisations who are better able to understand the needs of disabled people.”
Picture: Report co-authors Jaimini Mehta (right), Ellen Clifford, Dr Ewen Speed (left) and Dr Danny Taggart
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