A group of churches and charities have called on the UK government to hold an urgent independent review into the benefit sanctions regime.
The group argue that the government has failed to heed the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, who called for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions system earlier this year.
Dame Anne Begg, who chaired the Committee’s investigation, said:
“The implementation of the present sanction regime is controversial with the government claiming it is effective in helping people into work while many others say sanctions are causing real distress to families and are actually acting as a barrier to participation.”
She added: “If sanctions work as a deterrent, why are so many people still facing multiple sanctions?
“As there are so many questions about the effects on people who have been sanctioned, it is time the government implemented the recommendation of my Select Committee in the last Parliament to carry out a full, independent review of the whole sanction regime.
“Many believe that sanctions are being applied to the wrong people for often trivial reasons and are the cause of the increased use of foodbanks. Only an independent review can get to the truth of what is actually happening so that government policy can be based on evidence and not seen as merely punitive.”
In a 100 day period last year, 346,256 people who were on Jobseeker’s Allowance and 35,554 people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) were referred for sanctions. These resulted in 175,177 sanctions for Jobseekers and 11,129 for sick and disabled people claiming ESA.
92,558 were blamed on a bureaucratic error.
The call for a review is supported by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and by charities Church Action on Poverty, Gingerbread and Mind.
A new report from a coalition of major UK Churches has revealed that around 100,000 children were affected by benefit sanctions in 2013/14.
It also shows that in the same period a total of nearly 7 million weeks of sanctions were handed out to benefit claimants.
The new data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, will feature in this evening’s episode of Channel 4’s Dispatches, entitled ‘Britain’s Benefits Crackdown’.
The report, entitled Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, is published today by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, the Church in Wales, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church. It contains new data on the severity and length of sanctions under Welfare Reform, and on how sanctions affect vulnerable groups such as children and those with mental health problems.
It features the stories of people like James (not his real name) who have had their benefits sanctioned:
“During the first three weeks of my sanction I continued to look for work as I was required to. By the fourth week however I was exhausted, unwell and no longer had it in me. I was not eating as I had no food and was losing a lot of weight. I told the Jobcentre I was unwell through not eating but was sanctioned for another three months for not looking for work properly.”
“Those who already have the most difficult lives are those most likely to be sanctioned,” said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church and one of the authors of the report.
“Sanctions impact disproportionately on young people, care leavers, homeless people, single parents, the mentally ill and those with long term illness. This system causes problems for the very people that most need help.
“But sanctions don’t just have a financial impact. The people we’ve spoken to have told us of the shame, demoralisation and loss of self-worth caused by this system.
“As Christians we believe that everyone is loved, valued and made in the image of God, and we have a responsibility to challenge any structure or system that undermines that dignity.”
The Churches are calling for a full and independent review of the regime and for urgent reform of the hardship payments system to avoid the deliberate imposition of hunger.
In the meantime, they are urging the Government to suspend all sanctions against families with children and those suffering from mental health problems. Most importantly, they say, there needs to be a change of culture, from one of enforcement and punishment to one of assistance and support.
“If you commit a crime, no criminal court in the UK is allowed to make you go hungry as a punishment,” added Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty.
“But if you’re late for an appointment at the Jobcentre, they can remove all your income and leave you unable to feed you or your family for weeks at a time.
“Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that far from providing a safety net, the benefit sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute.
“This policy must be reviewed urgently.”
The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, said:
“The findings of this report are disturbing.
“It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.
“Most worryingly, it appears from DWP guidance, quoted in the report, that deprivation and hunger are knowingly being used as a punishment for quite trivial breaches of benefit conditions.
“Employers would not be allowed to stop someone’s wages for a month the first time they were 10 minutes late for an appointment, but this is the kind of sanction that is being imposed on some of the most vulnerable people in our society, including those with mental and physical health problems.
“We are concerned that the problem may be even worse in Wales, recognising the higher levels of poverty in this country. No Welsh data, however, is included in the report because despite submitting a Freedom of Information request to the DWP three months ago, we are still waiting for a reply.
“There is supposed to be a 20-day turnaround period for Freedom of Information requests. We are pursuing this.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 02 Mar 2015
North East Christians are calling for an end to “political short-termism” and urge the next Government to take issues like homelessness and food poverty seriously.
A new poll by Church Action on Poverty also reveals practising Christians are frustrated by church leaders’ failure to challenge politicians.
The poll, carried out by ComRes, highlights a deep dissatisfaction with Government among the region’s congregations.
- Eight in ten (82%) Christians would vote for a party with a positive long-term vision for society;
- Nine in ten (90%) think politicians are more interested in short-term political concerns;
- 74% believe churches and church leaders don’t talk enough in public about issues like food poverty, homelessness and tax avoidance;
- Four in five (85%) say that churches and church leaders do not effectively challenge politicians to communicate a long-term positive vision for society.
Minister Simon Lawton, of Newcastle’s Elim Pentecostal Church, said:
“I’m not at all surprised by the results of this survey. I would imagine that most people would agree with its findings.
“I believe people long for a society where compassion, justice and love and respect for your fellow man is central.
“Naturally we all have a part to play in this. The coming election is an opportunity for all of us, especially Christians, to host hustings and interview prospective candidates in order to make an informed decision.
“We can make a difference and we have a responsibility to make our vote count locally.”
The charity Churches Together is now calling on church-goers to challenge the region’s would-be MPs during hustings it will organise in the run-up to the General Election to coincide with its Vision 2020 of the Good Society report.
It comes ahead of Church Action on Poverty Sunday, this weekend as the charity calls for politicians to put forward a vision for a better society and to reject negative campaigning.
Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, said:
“As the Bible says ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’
“Christians are crying out for politicians to share a positive long-term vision for society – but politicians and political parties are currently failing to do so.
“But today’s poll is also a challenge to the churches to speak publicly about our own vision of a good society.
“By organising local hustings events, we can challenge those who want to represent us in Parliament to go beyond the usual political short-termism and engage in a positive debate about the kind of society they – and we – want to live in by the year 2020.”
Bob Fyffe, general secretary of Churches Together, added:
“The emphasis church-goers so often want is a shared vision of the Common Good. How do we build long-term sustainable communities where justice and compassion are at the centre of all that we do?
“It is having a vision for those who are on the margins and feel that there is no one there for them.
“How do we build local communities where people of faith and those of no faith can share common values and live in harmony, where everyone has a proper sense of belonging?
“Taking part in the democratic process is of fundamental importance to being a good citizen. The church hustings allow people to come together and make informed decisions which are central to their lives and prosperity.”
Source – Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 13 Feb 2015
Oxfam Press Release: Big rise in UK food poverty sees 20m meals given out in last year
Food banks and food aid charities gave more than 20 million meals last year to people in the UK who could not afford to feed themselves – a 54 per cent increase on the previous 12 months, according to a report published today by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and The Trussell Trust.
Below the Breadline warns that there has been a rise in people turning to food banks in affluent areas. Cheltenham, Welwyn Garden City and North Lakes have seen numbers of users double and in some cases treble. The massive rise in meals handed out by food banks and food aid charities is a damning indictment of an increasingly unequal Britain where five families have the same wealth as the poorest 20 per cent of the population.
The report details how a perfect storm of changes to the social security system, benefit sanctions, low and stagnant wages, insecure and zero-hours contracts and rising food and energy prices are all contributing to the increasing numbers of meals handed out by food banks and other charities. Food prices have increased by 43.5 per cent in the past 8 years. During the same time the poorest 20 per cent have seen their disposable income fall by £936 a year.
Mark Goldring, Oxfam Chief Executive, said: “Food banks provide invaluable support for families on the breadline but the fact they are needed in 21st Century Britain is a stain on our national conscience. Why is the Government not looking into this?
“We truly are living through a tale of two Britains; while those at the top of the tree may be benefiting from the green shoots of economic recovery, life on the ground for the poorest is getting tougher.
“At a time when politicians tell us that the economy is recovering, poor people are struggling to cope with a perfect storm of stagnating wages, insecure work and rising food and fuel prices. The Government needs to do more to ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable aren’t left behind by the economic recovery.”
Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action on Poverty said: “Protecting its people from going hungry is one of the most fundamental duties of Government. Most of us assume that when we fall on hard times, the social security safety net will kick in, and prevent us falling into destitution and hunger. We want all political parties to commit to re-instating the safety net principle as a core purpose of the social security system, and draw up proposals to ensure that no one in the UK should go hungry.”
Chris Mould, Chairman of The Trussell Trust said: “Trussell Trust food banks alone gave three days’ food to over 300,000 children last year. Below the Breadline reminds us that Trussell Trust figures are just the tip of the iceberg of UK food poverty, which is a national disgrace.
“The troubling reality is that there are also thousands more people struggling with food poverty who have no access to food aid, or are too ashamed to seek help, as well as a large number of people who are only just coping by eating less and buying cheap food.
“Trussell Trust food banks are seeing parents skipping meals to feed their children and significant repercussions of food poverty on physical and mental health. Unless there is determined policy action to ensure that the benefits of national economic recovery reach people on low-incomes we won’t see life get better for the poorest anytime soon.”
The report will feature on tonight’s Dispatches, to be broadcast at 7.30pm on Channel 4. The documentary, Breadline Kids, will follow three families in their daily lives as they struggle to feed themselves.
In total, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty estimate that the three main food aid providers – Trussell Trust, Fareshare and Food Cycle – gave out over 20m meals in 2013-4, up from around 13m, a year earlier. The Trussell Trust, the only robust source of statistics showing how many people actually visit food banks, reported in April that 913,138 people were given three days’ emergency food between April 2013 and March 2014 – the equivalent of over 8 million meals.
Benefit sanctions is one of the major factors contributing to the increase in food bank usage. Since the new sanctions policy was implemented in October 2012, over 1 million sanctions have been applied.
A recent report by the Work and Pensions Select Committee recommended that “DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by benefit sanctions (http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmworpen/479/479.pdf; p.29)
Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and The Trussell Trust are calling on the Government to urgently draw up an action plan to reverse the rising tide of food poverty and to collect evidence to understand the scale and cause of the increases in food bank usage. The organisations are also calling on all political parties to re-instate the safety net principle as a core purpose of the social security system.
Source – Welfare News Service, 09 June 2014
Council leaders in South Tyneside are being asked to launch a crusade against high-interest rate lenders.
The move comes as the Citizens Advice Bureau in South Shields says the number of people approaching it with debts resulting from payday loans has doubled in the last two years and the average amount owed is £1,610.
A motion, to go before a full meeting of South Tyneside Council council later this week, calls for a series of measures to clampdown on lenders like Wonga, The Money Shop, Quickquid and Payday UK.
The recommendations are:
* Blocking access to loan company websites from council-owned computers.
* Issuing public warnings about the dangers of payday lenders.
* Work with partners to stop lenders locating in South Tyneside and prevent them promoting their businesses in the borough.
* Try to get licensing powers extended to limit the expansion of lenders in the borough.
* Provide debt advice to people affected by lenders.
* Promote the Bridge Community Bank in South Shields as an alternative lender.
> If it’s any incentive, I’ve got an account with The Bridge !
The Money Shop, which has an outlet in Fowler Street, South Shields, offers an annual interest rate of 390.94 per cent and an annual percentage rate – the rate for a payment period, multiplied by the number of payment periods in a year – of 2,962 per cent.
Anyone taking out a £200 loan would face repaying – in a single payment, within 28 days – £259.98.
Coun Allan West, the council’s lead member for adult social care and support services, is a signatary to the motion, and says he is concerned that the most vulnerable people in the borough are falling foul of the lenders.
He said: “It is easy to understand the financial pressures that lead people to rely on payday lenders, but their excessive interest rates mean there is a real risk of a short-term financial issue turning into a long-term spiral of increasing debt and interest payments. A national cap on the cost of lending would go a long way towards protecting some of our most vulnerable citizens from the dangers of payday lending.”
He added: “In the meantime there is a lot we can do locally, by letting people know about options like The Bridges Community Bank, which offers much lower rates, as well as keeping money in the local economy.
“I would encourage anyone who has financial problems or concerns about the Government’s changes to the welfare system to contact the council’s welfare rights service on 424 6040.”
The full council meets at South Shields Town Hall at 6pm on Thursday.
Payday lending firms have become a major political issue in recent years.
Many councils already block access to lenders’ websites from libraries and other public buildings and South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck, last year, signed a national charter – supported by some of Britain’s biggest debt, consumer and anti-poverty organisations, including Which?, Citizens Advice, StepChange Debt Charity and Church Action on Poverty – calling for tougher regulation of payday lenders.
In October 2012, Newcastle United sparked a storm when the club announced a four-year sponsorship deal with Wonga.com.
The payday loan company now has its name on the club’s shirts.
Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery labelled the company “morally bankrupt” on social networking site Twitter.
Before the start of this season, the club’s star striker, Papiss Cisse, said he would not wear the club shirt bearing a Wonga logo on religious grounds, but the row was resolved in time for the club’s warm-up match against St Mirren.
Source – Shields Gazette, 11 March 2014