25 Oct 2013

Benefit sanctions causing ‘great hardship’

Social Affairs Editor and Presenter

Penalising benefit claimants who are not deemed to be doing enough to find work is leaving people without any money to live on, according to research from the Citizens Advice Bureau.

Almost a quarter of claimants who lost their benefits for a period of time told the CAB they did not know why, with more than half saying they had not been given any information about appealing against the decision, and others complaining that sanctions had been applied unfairly.

The survey, carried out by Greater Manchester CAB, involved 376 people across the UK whose benefits had been withdrawn.

Two thirds of these people were left without any income, while those with children had to rely on child benefit and child tax credit. Just under a quarter were living in households with children.

Eight in ten people coped by borrowing money from friends and family, 8 per cent relied on a bank or credit card, and 9 per cent went to a payday lender. Seven in ten cut down on food and half spent less on heating.

The majority of those sanctioned lost their benefits for four weeks or less, but almost a third had to cope for 10 weeks or more.

‘Great hardship’

The CAB says that “the imposition of sanctions is causing great hardship not only to claimants but to their dependants” and argues that this is “likely to make claimants less rather than more likely to be in a position to find and keep paid work”.

It also accuses the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) of setting targets for sanction withdrawals.

“Despite initial government denials, it is clear that recently some job centres have been set targets for sanctioning claimants, with DWP staff creating ‘league tables’ based on the number of sanctions issued by individual job centres.

“The effects are apparent in the dramatic increase in the number of sanctions issued: in 2009 the number of claimants sanctioned was 139,000, consistent with numbers earlier in the decade; by 2011 this had increased to 508,0005.”

‘Treated unfairly’

Although almost a quarter of survey respondents said they did not know why they had been sanctioned, 29 per cent said this had happened because they had not done enough to find work. But many people said they had been looking for work and were treated unfairly.

More than half said they had not received information about appealing, but three fifths appealed anyway. A third of these appeals were successful and another quarter were still being assessed when the survey was carried out.

Single mother Lisa Aldous, from Greater Manchester, is on a teaching assistant course and a volunteer at her local primary school.

She had her jobseeker's allowance payments stopped for four weeks after failing to complete a computing course she wanted to attend because the timing of the classes meant she was unable to pick up her daughter from school.

The mother-of-two had to rely on hardship payments of £86 a fortnight, far lower than the £143 she receives in benefits. She appealed against the decision and has just heard that she has won.

She told Channel 4 News: "I think people should be looked at individually. There are some people on benefits who don't do anything and don't want to do anything, smoke and drink and waste money.

"Fair enough, they should be sanctioned. But people are individuals. There are a lot of people in my circumstances who don't have childcare, who can't afford childcare even if I'd got a job. So I need a term-time job, which is why I'm doing this teaching assistant course.

"It's not fair when I've asked to go on a (computing) course. I wanted some help from the job centre and every time I asked for help I get told there's no help. Now they've put me on a course I can't do."

The CAB says government advisers told the government in 2012 that for sanctions to work, there had to be good communication, a personal touch and fairness, but “the evidence of this survey is that none of these conditions is currently being met”.

The DWP says the rules regarding jobseeker’s allowance are made clear to people when they make a claim and claimants are only sanctioned if they are not actively seeking work. Hardship payments are available to those with no other means of support.

A DWP spokesperson said: “It’s only right that people claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work if they are able. The rules regarding someone’s entitlement to jobseeker’s allowance, and what could happen to their benefits if they don’t stick to those rules, are made very clear at the start of their claim.

“We will provide jobseekers with the help and support they need to find a job, but it is only fair that in return they live up to their part of the contract. Sanctions are used as a last resort and anyone who disagrees with a decision can appeal.”