It’s hard to imagine how today’s report from the National Audit Office (NAO) on welfare sanctions could be more damning. It found that stopping or delaying people’s benefits is damaging, costs more than it saves, and is being applied inconsistently throughout the country.
Sanctions, which are used when a claimant supposedly breaches the conditions of their benefits, can cause hunger and depression. Their application is linked as much to staff discretion as it is to claimant behaviour. And it costs the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) more to apply sanctions and monitor the conditions it sets for claimants than it saves from withholding payments.
— NationalAuditOffice (@NAOorguk) November 30, 2016
To anyone with any experience of the welfare system, this will come as no surprise. For years now, campaigners and charities have warned of the hardship caused by sanctions, yet still they continue. It’s hard to see what it would take to make the government stop using them. If the death of David Clapson, who was found dead three weeks after having his benefits stopped, wasn’t enough to make them listen, it’s unlikely this report – or any other – will do so.
The details of David’s case have been well reported but they are worth repeating. He was diabetic, he couldn’t afford to top up his electricity card, so the fridge, where he kept his insulin, was no longer working. When his body was found there was very little food in his flat and a pile of CVs were found close to where he lay. A coroner later said that when he died, his stomach had no food in it.
That somebody could die in the UK in a cold flat with an empty stomach is bad enough. To know that the Department for Work and Pensions intentionally made that person’s life harder is unforgivable. And although this is perhaps the most extreme example of what can happen when you snatch away what little somebody is already surviving on, there are many, many more cases of the hardship that sanctions cause.
Take this recent blog on Mumsnet by the prominent Twitter user ‘I’m a JSA Claimant’. He describes sitting alone on Christmas Day with no heating and little food, after being sanctioned for missing an appointment at the jobcentre because he was attending a training course.
— I was a JSA claimant (@imajsaclaimant) November 29, 2016
Or look at some of the reasons given to the Trussell Trust by users of foodbanks for why they had their money stopped. There was the man who said he missed an appointment because he was in hospital with his partner who had just had a stillborn child. There was the young man with learning difficulties who wrote: “My money keeps getting stopped for some reason and I don’t know why.” And a couple who said they had their money stopped for over a month because they hadn’t attended an appointment. It turned out the DWP had their address wrongly recorded and they never received the letters.
The Trussell Trust submitted this evidence and more to an MPs inquiry into sanctions last year. It followed a scathing report in 2014, commissioned by the DWP, which found that the most vulnerable claimants were often unable to understand why their money had been stopped and frequently weren’t informed about hardship payments which they were entitled to.
Now here we are, approaching the end of 2016, and very little has changed. Another report, another bland and meaningless statement being trotted out by the DWP about how sanctions are an important part of the welfare system and only used as a last resort. They’re not interested in the pain and suffering their punitive system causes.
The truth is that sanctions are intended to hurt. Benefit claimants must jump through hoops to get their money and if they slip up they are punished. Never mind the fact that they cost the government more than they save, or that they risk people spiralling into debt.
Just this month the new work and pensions secretary, Damian Green, reiterated that sanctions “contribute to a fairer society”. Fairness seems to be this government’s buzzword but if today’s report and all the evidence that has been published before it is anything to go by, there is very little about the use of sanctions that is fair.
Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for Politics.co.uk. You can follow her on Twitter here.