A series of media reports and research publications, as well as an evidence session before MPs, highlighted the pressure imposed on civil servants to refer claimants – many of whom are disabled – to have their benefits stopped temporarily.
It follows reports by Disability News Service on concerns that Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff are failing to take the correct precautions when “vulnerable” people are about to have their benefits sanctioned.
DNS has also revealed that DWP has carried out 60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.
Although coalition 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 to the social security system, including DWP’s use of sanctions to temporarily remove benefits from claimants.
On Wednesday, nine experts gave evidence to the Commons work and pensions select committee for its inquiry into benefit sanctions policy, which is particularly looking at how the Welfare Reform Act 2012 strengthened the sanctions regimes for both jobseekers allowance and employment and support allowance (ESA).
Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, read an extract from a guide for DWP decision-makers (DMs), which revealed that “it is assumed that health would be harmed by a sanction”.
The guide says: “It would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without essential items such as food, clothing, heating and accommodation, or sufficient money to buy sufficient items, for a period of two weeks.
“The DM must determine if a person with a medical condition would suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult and would suffer hardship.”
Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, a research associate at Durham University, had submitted a written statement to the committee describing the effects of sanctions on people in Stockton-on-Tees who were already in poor health, particularly those with mental health conditions.
She described one woman, who was 22 weeks pregnant and had walked more than two miles to a food bank because she couldn’t afford to take a bus.
She was receiving ESA because of a mental health condition triggered by giving birth to a stillborn child, but was sanctioned after missing a single jobcentre appointment, despite letting her adviser know she would not be able to make the appointment.
Garthwaite described how the sanction worsened the woman’s mental health, and increased her debts.
At one stage she had not eaten a proper cooked meal in more than two weeks and was living on leftovers from meals eaten by her sister’s children.
She could not afford electricity and so her fridge and cooker had not been switched on for three weeks, and she had sold her television because she could not afford to use it.
Garthwaite described another woman, who had digestive and mental health problems, and was sanctioned after missing a jobcentre appointment, and told her: “Because of the anaemia, my energy levels are so low I nod off regularly, and towards the afternoon I don’t have energy to do the housework.
“I’m not unintelligent, I know what I need to keep my levels going, I know what I need for my diet, but it’s hard to keep that going when you’re left eating just bread with chocolate spread on it and that’s all you’ve got for the day.”
Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, told the committee that the union’s survey of Jobcentre Plus advisers and decision-makers found 70 per cent did not think sanctioning helped claimants find work, while three in five (61 per cent) felt there was pressure on them to refer claimants for sanctions.
Meanwhile, an investigation into the government’s benefit sanctions regime by BBC Radio 4’s File on Four interviewed a Jobcentre Plus whistleblower, who said: “Every opportunity with a customer was an opportunity to sanction.
“We were encouraged to view the customer as the lowest of the low. It didn’t matter what they’d done. The fact that they were claiming benefit meant they were up for some special treatment.”
He said staff were encouraged to target all claimants and “set them up to fail, make life difficult for them”.
DWP told File on Four that it had investigated and found no evidence to back up his allegations.
File on Four also reported new data obtained by researchers for the Methodist Church, using Freedom of Information Act requests to DWP, which found that ESA claimants judged not fit for work because of mental health conditions were more likely to have their benefits stopped by sanctions than those with other impairments.
In March 2014, according to the figures, about 4,500 ESA claimants with mental health conditions were sanctioned.
22 January 2015