Durham University study warns cutting off benefits ‘makes people ill’

Tough measures designed to force benefit claimants to find work are instead making them ill, a study by North East academics has warned.

Claimants who have their benefits cut are sometimes left to go without food or the ability to heat their homes, a study found.

And this has an impact on their health – particularly because some of these affected are already ill or disabled.

The study was carried out by researcher Kayleigh Garthwaite and Professor Clare Bambra of Durham University.

Their findings were presented to MPs on the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, which is holding an investigation into “sanctions” which can imposed on people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance and some people claiming Employment and Support Allowance, a benefit paid to people who are ill or disabled.

Claimants can have their benefits cuts off, known as a sanction, if officials believe they have failed to prove that they are looking for work.

But critics including a number of North East MPs argue that some claimants have lost benefits for no good reason. In a Commons debate in January, Bishop Auckland MP Helen Goodman and other Labour MPs said they believed job centre staff were given unofficial targets for the number of sanctions issued.

The study by Dr Garthwaite and Professor Bambra was part of a five year project looking at why some groups of people are healthier than others, which has focused on foodbank users in Stockton on Tees.

In a paper presented to MPs, they said:

“Sanctions led to loss of their only source of income, resulting in sanctioned ESA recipients often going without sufficient food and/or energy required to maintain good health or recover from illness.”

In some cases, benefits were taken from people who did not understand the complex rules, including people mental health conditions, the academics said.

They warned:

“Sanctions have led to cases of a total loss of income resulting in an inability to eat or heat at the levels required for maintaining good health or recovering from ill health.

“Indeed sanctions have exacerbated ill health. The sanctioning of people with mental health problems is a particular problem – with the stress and anxiety of income loss adding to their underlying condition.”

The academics said sanctions for ESA claimants “should be relaxed or removed – particularly for those with mental health problems”.

Dr Garthwaite also spoke to MPs at Westminster, where she warned that claimants often had no idea that there was an official hardship fund available to help people who had entirely run out of money.

She told them that some food bank users had resorted to eating food they knew would be bad for them because of medical conditions – such as an intolerance for wheat – because they had nothing else.

Defending the policy, Employment Minister Esther McVey told the committee that studies had shown sanctions encouraged people to find work.

She said:

“All the international evidence suggests that sanctions do have a positive impact on people getting into work, and there are two parts of that: as a deterrent, it has a positive impact on moving people into work, and there is further research that, should somebody have been sanctioned, it helps them into work afterwards.”

The Government publishes figures showing how many sanctions have been imposed.

In Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, Durham and Tees Valley, sanctions were imposed 92,326 times since 2012.

The job centre which has cut benefits most often is James Cook House in Middlesbrough, which imposed 7,068 sanctions.

John Street job centre in Sunderland imposed 4,922 sanctions.

Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 14 Feb 2015

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