The government’s mainstream benefit sanctions regime has been discriminating against disabled people throughout nearly the whole of the last decade, according to new figures secured by Disability News Service (DNS).
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures, obtained through a freedom of information request, show that disabled people claiming the mainstream jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) were more likely to have their benefits sanctioned than non-disabled people in all but two years.
The figures show this has been true for every year from 2009 to 2018, except for 2017 and 2018 when the figures for disabled and non-disabled JSA claimants were almost identical.
They provide further evidence for the call in the Justice for Jodey Whiting petition for DWP to be declared institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose*.
The DNS research builds on work by the academic Ben Baumberg Geiger, from the University of Kent, which was published in February 2018 and reported figures for 2010 to 2014.
It has taken DNS nearly 18 months to secure the necessary data from DWP – which has repeatedly breached its legal obligations to provide the information – to show whether the discrimination continued after 2014.
The figures show that, when the JSA sanctions system was at its most discriminatory – in 2009 and 2013 – disabled people claiming jobseeker’s allowance were about 50 per cent more likely (2009) and a third more likely (2013) to have their benefits sanctioned than non-disabled people claiming the same benefit.
The figures take a snapshot of how many disabled and non-disabled JSA claimants were sanctioned in one month – May – for every year and compare that with how many disabled and non-disabled people were claiming JSA in that month, using figures provided by DWP through the freedom of information request.
When DWP’s sanctioning regime was at its most extreme, in 2013, more than seven per cent of disabled people claiming JSA were sanctioned in May of that year, compared with more than five per cent of non-disabled JSA claimants.
In May 2013, more than 21,000 disabled people (21,526) claiming JSA had their benefits sanctioned for breaching conditions laid down by DWP.
But even in 2018, when far fewer JSA claimants were being sanctioned, a disabled JSA claimant was still almost as likely to be sanctioned (0.41 per cent) as a non-disabled claimant (0.45 per cent).
A DWP spokesperson did not dispute the DNS figures, but he said that DWP did not accept that the evidence showed the department was institutionally disablist and not fit for purpose.
He also pointed out that the figures were drawn from “an amalgamation of two different sources”.
He said: “Since 2012, of all decisions that have been referred to a decision maker, disabled claimants are less likely to get an adverse sanction decision imposed, compared to non-disabled claimants.
“Furthermore, the likelihood of the outcome of a sanction referral being adverse [a recommendation that a claimant should be sanctioned being confirmed by DWP] is lower for disabled claimants than non-disabled claimants.”
He added: “It is completely untrue to say that sanctions are applied more harshly to disabled people.
“In fact those with a severe disability or health condition, who are not required to seek work, are not subject to sanctions at all.
“Sanctions are only ever used where a claimant has failed to meet their agreed obligations without good reason, and any obligations will vary depending on an individual claimant’s circumstances.
“The latest figures show that universal credit sanctions have fallen to the lowest rate on record, affecting fewer than three per cent of claimants who are subject to obligations for their benefits.”
Although the DWP figures are important in showing how the department appeared to repeatedly discriminate against disabled people for nearly a decade, there are now crucial concerns over its failure to show how many disabled claimants of the new universal credit, which is gradually replacing JSA for most people, are being sanctioned.
Anita Bellows, a researcher for Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), this week told a parliamentary inquiry into the impact on children and disabled people of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 that many disabled people were “becoming invisible” on universal credit.
She told the evidence session, chaired by Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, that the lack of clear information about universal credit (UC) being provided by DWP made it impossible to tell how many disabled people were being sanctioned.
Dr David Webster, a leading researcher on unemployment and sanctions at the University of Glasgow, made a similar point to the Commons work and pensions select committee last year.
He warned then that it was impossible to tell from DWP statistics how many claimants of UC who had been sanctioned were sick and disabled people.
A House of Commons briefing paper last September – drawing on Dr Webster’s research – said that sanction rates under UC appeared to be “several times higher” than under the benefits they were replacing.
Bellows said: “It is not surprising to learn that disabled JSA claimants are being disproportionally sanctioned, as it has been a constant feature in the benefit system that some people, including disabled unemployed people, are seen as soft targets by the DWP: people who have learning difficulties, mental and physical health issues, along with people for whom English is their second language, etc.
“What is worrying is that the introduction of UC has led to the invisibility of disabled people in the system.
“Information given by UC statistics does not desegregate the data by claims, or by work capability assessment outcomes, but by ‘conditionality group’.
“These different conditionality groups include disabled and non-disabled claimants, which makes it impossible to know the percentage of disabled people exposed to sanctions, or who are being sanctioned.
“What it means is that it is more difficult to know what is happening to disabled people in the benefit system and to hold the DWP accountable for its performance, at a time where the DWP is more and more resorting to exemptions in order to refuse answering freedom of information requests.”
*Sign the Jodey Whiting petition here. If you sign the petition, please note you will need to confirm your signature by clicking on an email you will be sent automatically by the House of Commons petitions committee
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