Reposted from Patrick Cutlers Blog – The Guardian
From the effects on claimant health, to why you are more likely to be sanctioned if you sign on in Derby, there was much to learn from this week’s sanctions inquiry hearing
I learned more than five things about benefit sanctions at this week’s work and pensions select committee hearing (watch proceedings here). But these five stood out for me.
1. It’s official: sanctions are bad for your health.
The following piece of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) guidance for jobcentre staff was brought to the attention of MPs by Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group:
It would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without
1. essential items, such as food, clothing, heating and accommodation or
2. sufficient money to buy essential items for a period of two weeks.
The DM [sanctions decision-maker] 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
In other words, there is an explicit recognition in DWP guidance that sanction penalties – and we know many sanctioned claimants are left without income for at least four weeks – will lead to a deterioration in health.
The guidance is not used to determine whether someone should be sanctioned in the first place (the rules are clear that if a claimants has breached conditionality they will face sanctions) but whether they should subsequently qualify for hardship payments.
Garnham was clear about what she thought it means:
It is assumed that your health will be damaged by a sanction
2. If you are ill to start with, sanctions are really, really bad for your health
The health consequences of financial sanctions on people who are disabled or unwell can be severe, explained Kayleigh Garthwaite of Durham University. She outlined the effects of sanctions-related food poverty on claimants with a range of conditions, from dietary-related disorders to mental illness (watch from around 10.23).
Garthwaite spent 12 months carrying out in-depth ethnographic researchin a Trussell trust food bank in Stockton-on-Tees. She found claimants on incapacity benefit left penniless after sanctioning often went without healthy food, or ate medically-unsuitable food. Sanctions, she concluded, exacerbated health problems.
Garthwaite cited Jessica, a 23 year old woman with mental health problems, who was 22 weeks pregnant. Jessica, who had walked two miles to the food bank, reported that since her benefits were stopped she had not eaten “a proper cooked meal” for two weeks and was reliant on “her sister’s children’s leftovers”.
Naomi, a sanctioned food bank client who suffered from a digestive problems, was unable to eat wheat-based foodstuffs. Garthwaite recounted Naomi’s story to the committee:
I ate the food from the food bank and I was ill over the weekend. I knew I would be, I knew from eating the white wheat-based food I would be poorly. But I was hungry, so I just suffered the consequences.
3. Sanctioning is a postcode lottery
Sanctions have increased across the board since June 2011 after stricter conditionality was imposed on claimants, the committee heard from Professor David Stuckler of Oxford University. Yet at the same time, the chances of being sanctioned vary widely depending on where you live.
As the table below, compiled by Oxford University researchers, shows, almost one in 10 benefit claimants were sanctioned in Derby, Southampton and Burnley in 2013-14. However if you lived in Richmond, Elmbridge or Runnymede, however, the chances of being sanctioned were one in 50.
The researchers are unsure what explains these variations: local employment market conditions? Local DWP policy? More research is needed, they say.
I’ve also seen separate Oxford data setting out some monthly sanctioning rates (highest and lowest) in 2013-14. This shows that in Corby in October of that year, a staggering 14% of all claimants were sanctioned. Yet in Elmbridge, in the same month, just 1% claimants had their benefits stopped. In one borough – Fylde – there was a huge swing in sanction rates, from 1.6% of claimants to 11% within the space of 10 months.
Again, it is not clear why these variations occur.
Another observation from the Oxford data is that sanction rates fall across the board in December. The season of goodwill. Does the system have a conscience after all?
4. Many sanctioned people “disappear” – but why?
Stuckler told MPs that 43% of people who are sanctioned go on to leave the dole (this percentage has grown four-fold since 2011). Many of these subsequently “disappear from view”. According to DWP data which monitors the reasons why people sign off, just 20% of people are recorded as saying they have found work, with the remainder leaving for unspecified reasons.
The data does not record what happens to people who appear to be neither in work or in receipt of social security assistance. The Conservative MP Nigel Mills suggested that as we don’t know for sure, could it be that many had found work?
The risk, according to the Oxford researchers, is that the punitive use of sanctions drives vulnerable people away from social support because the barriers for compliance with the rules are too tough. The potential consequences of this disconnection can be mental illness, hunger and homelessness. The research also speculates that:
It is also possible that people choose to abandon a welfare system that they find de-humanising
I came across a written testimony to the committee which illustrates this point. It’s from Trevor Stanski, 53, a former City worker who has chronic back problems. Stanski describes in detail his demoralising experience of the sanction regime. He concludes:
I am back in the equivalent of sanction mode. I’m used to it. In the last week I spent £1.30 on food. This bought me 2 loaves of bread and 10 kilo’s of potatoes. Thankfully my local Sainsbury’s offers food at 75% off when going out of date. I only eat going out of date food. I’ve given up on the Social Security route.
5. Jobcentre staff feel under pressure to sanction claimants inappropriately
I reported this week on written evidence submitted to the inquiry by two former jobcentre advisers who alleged that they had witnessed or experienced the cynical targeting of claimants for sanctions to meet official targets. The DWP responded that at least one of the allegations had been investigated and was unfounded.
At the committee itself, Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the PCS union, said his members reported that this kind of pressure was widespread. He quoted from an email sent to the union from a staff member. The email, a copy of which I obtained from PCS union, states:
As a [jobcentre] we are very closely monitored around around sanctions rates. Each week [there is]… a print out of the percentage of sanction decisions we are making. This is clearly a bullying tool in order to bring LMDMs [labour market decision-makers, or people who decide on whether to apply a sanction] into line with senior management’s requirement for 80% of referrals to be a sanction. In one-to-one meetings these… stats are strongly focused on by line managers… We are being forced into making adverse decisions and conducting perverse behaviours in order to hit our unachievable targets, all in order to achieve an 80% rate of sanctions.
Serwortka, incidentally, also made a useful wider point. A full independent inquiry into sanctions, he said, will not just uncover system flaws but raise more profound questions:
The question we think everybody should ask is: “What is our social security system for?”