45% rise in sanctions leaves more jobseekers destitute

Wed, 06/11/2013 - 13:32 -- nick

A big rise in the number of sanction referrals handed out by jobcentres and other advisors means more jobseekers have moved into destitution.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has today released figures for sanctions - the act of removing benefits for a perceived offence - showing more have had money removed than ever before.

In 2011 - itself a record year - 1.34 million sanctions were handed out.

But the latest figures show that, in the year to June 2013, this had grown to over 1.9 million, a rise of an incredible 45%.

Even more shocking is the fact that unemployment had actually been falling over much of this time.

The number of people having benefits removed - an 'adverse decision' in government speak - went up from 668,800 to 859,740, itself a rise of 29%.

There is no evidence that unemployed people are getting less professional in their search for work, but there are suggestions that the sanctioning regime has been getting unreasonably tough.

In May this year an internal DWP report showed that some jobcentres were setting targets for sanctions, meaning some are likely to have had benefits removed simply to satisfy an arbitrary number.

This may partly account for why the gap between the number of referrals and the number of sanctions has been growing; if advisors are being pressured to up their numbers they are likely to target people who even the most partisan decision-maker cannot agree made a big enough mistake to have benefits wrenched away.

The regime has often been criticised under this government; Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau surveyed jobseekers nationwide and reported last week that many had been provided with no information on their sanctions and did not know why they had been given.

It also found high levels of successful appeals, and a belief among the unemployed that some advisors were handing sanctions out on the most spurious and overly-officious grounds.

A tumblr account - Stupid Sanctions - has been started to document some of the more outrageous reasons for taking benefits away from claimants.

These include a person who informed their jobcentre that they were starting work in two weeks getting sanctioned for not looking for work during those final two weeks, one who had a heart attack during an assessment being sanctioned for not completing the assessment, and another who had benefits removed because a job interview overran and caused them to be nine minutes late for their jobcentre appointment.

Those who question the sources of this information may be surprised to see that, as well as MPs and councillors, they include The Mail, not usually on the side of claimants.

The DWP's figures show that two of the top three categories for sanctions include 'failure to attend an advisor interview' and 'not actively seeking employment', both of which see multiple stupid entries in the tumblr account.

The difficult effects of sanctions on individuals were publicised in another report released last week by The Children’s Society.

It found that, among the UK’s three million poor children, itself a shameful number in a wealthy society, more than half said their home was too cold last winter, three-quarters said they often worried about money, and a quarter said their house had damp or mould.

More than half of poor children felt their poverty as an embarrassment, and 14% reported being bullied as a result of it, suggesting that the attitude of the government and some newspapers to the poor can filter through parents to their children and cause suffering.

The Trussell Trust has shown that nearly half of all referrals to its foodbanks are due to benefit delays and sanctions, suggesting that a kind of charity-based parallel welfare system is developing alongside the real one, although the maximum three referrals each year means it is no real solution.

Esther McVey, the work minister, claimed that those people getting their benefits docked for missing job centre appointments were deliberately avoiding finding a job.

She said: "Sanctions are used as a deterrent. The vast, vast majority of people don't get sanctions. When you get jobseeker's allowance - there's a clue there in the name, jobseeker's allowance – you are paid that to make sure you are doing all you can do to get a job. We put things in place, you've got your adviser there working closely with you and it is for your best interests to get a job and we do all we can do.

"The people who get sanctions are wilfully rejecting support for no good reason and if there were a reason … there is something known as 'good cause', so if that seemed true and genuine you'd have good cause there to not have a sanction, plus there is a process in place just to ensure we are getting it right."

The total lack of understanding of how sanctions are working in practice could be excused by McVey being new in her post having only moved from a disabilities brief last month, but her apparent lack of interest in the devastating result cannot.

The pattern of increasing sanctions is likely to continue; the latest figures are annotated to show that a new tougher regime was introduced in October last year, and even more are suffering under this.

The coalition's pride in taking the paltry income provided to unemployed people in this country is perverse and unfitting.

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