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.
Mental health campaigners have criticised new Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) guidance, which could make it more difficult for women to claim sickness benefits than men.
New guidance issued by the DWP to healthcare professionals assessing people for Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), suggests that men and women should be tested differently.
A man who has been diagnosed with mental health problems and in danger of self-harm or suicide may be assessed as having limited capability for work. Whereas a women in the same position could be asked to show additional ‘personal factors’, such as a family history of suicide, in order to receive ESA.
The Government says the advice has been issued because suicide is “more prevalent among men than women”.
However, campaigners say the new guidance is over-simplistic and added that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) has already been heavily criticised over fairness and accuracy.
Carolyn Roberts from the Scottish Association for Mental Health (SAMH) warned that the changes were “potentially harmful” and urged the DWP to withdraw the advice.
“The Work Capability Assessment has already been heavily criticised for not being able to accurately assess mental health problems, with independent reviews recommending its assessors should have more experience in mental health”, she said.
“And while it is undoubtedly true that more men lose their lives to suicide than women, this looks like the addition of a blunt and unsophisticated method of assessment to a system that is already failing people with mental health problems. SAMH calls on the DWP to withdraw these new rules.”
Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind, said the charity is “seeking further clarification from the DWP on the reasoning behind this decision, which massively oversimplifies the issues around suicidal thoughts, feelings and actions”.
He added: “Although men account for around three-quarters of all suicides, this doesn’t tell the whole story as attempted suicides are not taken into account.
“There is still a huge lack of understanding within the welfare system around mental health and we want to see greater expertise on mental health and the impact it can have on somebody’s ability to work.”
The DWP said the guidance is included in a handbook given to health professionals who assess sick and disabled people for ESA and should not be regarded as “hard and fast rules”.
They added: “In the subject areas covered by the guidance there are some differences between men and women – for example, men have higher suicide rates than women – and the way the guidance is written is designed to take that into account.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 06 Apr 2015
Figures released today by the Office for National Statistics show that suicide rates, which had fallen consistently since 1981, have been climbing since 2007 and are now at their highest in over a decade. It is primarily male suicides which have increased.
The figures for 2013 give a total of 6,233 deaths by suicide, 252 more than in 2012.
Suicide rates appear to be highest in areas of high unemployment, with the North-East having the highest rate and London the lowest.
Older males are now the most at risk, with 45-59 year olds having the highest rate.
The link between benefits issues and increased suicide risk is being highlighted by charities such as Mind.
Speaking to the Guardian, Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager at Mind, said:
“Pressurising people by threatening to stop their benefits causes a great deal of financial problems and emotional distress, with some people attempting to take their own lives as a result.”
“While the right type of employment can be beneficial to wellbeing, the support offered to those on mandatory back-to-work schemes such as the Work Programme is far too generic to effectively help people with mental health problems move towards employment. We need to see an overhaul of the system with more tailored specialised support and less focus on sanctioning.”
Source – Benefits & Work, 19 Feb 2015
This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Thursday 8th January 2015
Pleas to the government to suspend its benefit sanctions regime pending a fundamental review of its impact – especially on the mentally ill and disabled – were made at the first session of a broad inquiry by the Department of Work and Pensions Select Committee.
In a two-and-half hour session involving academics, food banks administrators, disabled groups and employment service professionals, the select committee repeatedly heard the sanctions regime had changed over the last two years, creating a punitive culture of fear – especially amongst the disabled.
Mathew Oakley, the independent reviewer for sanctions appointed by the DWP did not join in their fiercest criticism of the system but said it would be wise for the government to undertake a general stock-take of the system in view of the extent to which it has changed over the past two parliaments.
> Matthew Oakley is the guy who in 2011 was behind a Policy Exchange thinktank report titled: Something For Nothing : Reinstating Conditionality For Jobseekers, which called for a new points based system for Jobseekers Allowance that recognises different ‘job-search’ activities that claimants are required to carry out each week.
‘Attending a job interview’, which is currently not a recognised job seeking activity, would earn a greater number of points than ‘putting together a CV’ or ‘seeking information about a job’.
Claimants would have to reach a specific number of points each week to receive their benefits. If they failed to reach the minimum target benefits would be withheld.
Or sanctioned in other words. So no prizes for guessing which side of the fence he’s on…
He was one of many witnesses that said the government lacked systematic information on what happened to jobseeker’s allowance claimants if they are sanctioned including whether they went into work, the black economy or instead disengaged, leading to the growing gap between the number unemployed and the numbers claiming JSA.
Dr David Webster, visiting professor of Glasgow University, claimed the system had a gradually parallel secret penal system – a view dismissed by one Tory committee member as ‘completely absurd and bizarre’. Webster said the DWP may now be saving as much as £275m a year due to claimants being stopped.
Tony Wilson, the Centre for Social and Economic Inclusion, said sanctions “are running so far ahead of what works we should suspend the applications of sanctions unless we have a much clearer idea of what works and the impact of sanctions”.
Paul Farmer, the chief executive officer of mental health charity Mind said sanctions amongst those on employment support allowance has risen from 1,700 a month to 4,800 a month, adding there had been a disproportionate impact on people on mental health.
He claimed 60% of those on ESA have a mental health problem, yet in only 8% of cases were GPs being contacted as required in guidance to seek their views on the pressing ahead with sanctions.
Chris Mould, the chairman of the Trussell Trust, one of the chief organisers of food banks in the UK, said there had been a radical change in the way very disproportionate decisions were being taken since the latter part of 2012 , adding it was clear some job centres were being more punitive than others. He said in too many cases it takes too long for a claimant to secure redress if they have had their benefit withdrawn.
Kirsty McHugh, the chief executive of Employment Related Services Association, the representative body for the employment support sector, also called for an overhaul including the introduction of an “early warning” system which could be used at first offence rather than imposing a sanction. She added frontline employment providers of the work programme should be given more discretion about when they should report jobseekers to Jobcentre Plus for potential sanctioning.
She also called for greater clarity across the system about which jobseekers are classed as “vulnerable” and should be exempt from sanctions.
McHugh said “For a minority of people, receiving a sanction can be the wake up call they need to help them move into work. However, for the vast majority of jobseekers, sanctions are more likely to hinder their journey into employment.”
> Yeah… that’s what we’ve been telling you for the past few years. So nice you’re catching up, but for some people its all too late.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 08 Jan 2015
Jobcentre staff are to target job seekers in ‘unusual locations’, as part of a new ‘blitz’ against Britain’s unemployed people.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) say an ‘army’ of government ‘jobs experts’ will target unemployed people at a number of locations, in a new bid to ‘support’ them back into work.
Specialist jobcentre staff, known as work coaches, will target unemployed people in places such as children’s centres, youth hubs, homeless shelters, and rural work clubs, ‘to offer targeted support to people who need it most’.
> There’s nothing specialist about Work Coaches – they’re just what used to be called Advisers. And they are, of course, working towards targets for sanctioning people.
DWP say work coaches have already partnered up with a number of professional football clubs including Arsenal, Everton, and Tottenham Hotspur, with schemes designed to build confidence and new skills to prepare unemployed people for work.
It’s unclear as to whether the DWP plan to adopt a similar approach in other locations. However, it’s highly likely people will at least be offered the option of signing up to the Work Programme as part of this new ‘blitz’ on Britain’s unemployed.
Employment Minister Esther McVey said:
“Our hardworking Jobcentre Plus staff have made a huge contribution to Britain’s jobs success this year. By doing things differently, and getting out to where job seekers are, they’re helping thousands into work every day.
“We have broken record after record in 2014 – with huge falls in youth and long-term unemployment and the highest number of women in work on record.
“This new approach is working. What we can see at the end of the year is that our welfare reforms are ensuring that people have the skills and opportunities to move into work.
“But behind these record figures there are countless stories of individual hard work and determination – stories of people turning their lives around, of families who are now feeling more secure over the Christmas period with a regular wage, and of young people escaping unemployment and building a career.”
The Work Programme, dubbed ‘workfare’ by opponents, has come under heavy criticism for helping only a relatively small number of people into work.
Official figures show less than 22% of 18-24 year-olds claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) find work lasting at least six months after 12 months on the scheme, falling to 17.6% for over 25’s.
This falls to 10.3% for sick and disabled people newly claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) who find work lasting at least three months, with some commentators claiming the combined figure for both new and older claims is just 8%.
A recent survey from the charity Mind revealed how the vast majority of people with mental health problems saw their health worsen while on Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship Work Programme.
Source – Welfare Weekly, 26 Dec 2014
This article was written by Karen McVeigh, for The Guardian on Sunday 14th December 2014
The Department for Work and Pensions has been urged by mental health and disability charities to publish its secret investigations into suicides that may have some link to benefit changes, following revelations that it has carried out internal reviews into 60 such cases.
A Freedom of Information request by the Disability News Service has revealed that the DWP has carried out “60 peer reviews following the death of a customer” since February 2012. A peer review is triggered when suicide or alleged suicide is “associated with a DWP activity”, according to its internal guidance.
Despite growing concern over the way benefits are administered in relation to vulnerable individuals, and amid a number of reports of related deaths, the department told the Guardian it had no plans to publish the reviews.
Disabled People Against the Cuts said that, because of the way the reviews were carried out, the DWP figure was likely to be the “tip of the iceberg”.
Tom Pollard, the policy and campaigns manager at Mind, told the Guardian the figures were a concern. He stressed that suicide was a complex problem but added:
“It would be helpful for organisations to see what things could be going wrong in the benefit system that could lead to these tragic situations.”
Sue Bott, director of policy and services at Disability Rights UK, said DWP reviews should be transparent.
“There have been allegations and anecdotal evidence for a while that the benefits regime has tipped people over the edge. It should be looked into in a transparent way,”
“This is not just about the nature of the decision taken as to whether it was right or wrong. It’s also about the process and there is a lot of concern about the way benefits are administered.”
The DWP’s latest figures show that sanctions to punish disabled ESA claimants had risen by 470% in 18 months, from 1,096 in December 2012 to 5,132 in June 2014.
According to DWP figures released as the result of an FoI request, 62% of adverse ESA sanction decisions in the first three months of 2014 were made against people with mental or behavioural problems (9,851 out of 15,955).
The calls for transparency from the DWP come after a number of reports of the deaths and suicides of vulnerable individuals after adverse benefit decisions.
David Clapson, 59, a former soldier and type-1 diabetic, died in July after his benefit was cut. Clapson had no food in his stomach, £3.44 in the bank and no money on his electricity card, leaving him unable to operate his fridge where he kept insulin.
MPs are to look into his death after a petition written by Gill Thompson, his sister, gathered more than 200,000 signatures.
Thompson, told the Guardian:
“All I’ve ever asked for is lessons to be learned. I can’t bring him back but we should know what is going on. There are certain people who shouldn’t be sanctioned. People with terminal cancer, waiting for heart operations, people with diabetes. Before they sanctioned my brother, they knew his disability. He was waiting to hear from a job, he had been on work placement. He was claiming the bare minimum.”
Christine Norman, a nurse whose disabled sister, Jacqueline Harris, took her own life in November 2013 after her benefits were cut, said:
“It’s too late for my sister. Everything is stacked against you. If you’ve got a great education, if you have great health, you’re OK. But if you haven’t, you have to fight against the odds. The government want you to work. The ones they pick are the ones that are vulnerable and ill.”
An inquest found last month that Harris, 53, of Bristol, who was partially sighted, took her own life after months of constant pain and following a “fit for work” ruling that replaced her incapacity benefit with jobseeker’s allowance. Staff at a jobcentre Harris was told to attend had to call an ambulance after she blacked out in pain.
Disabled People Against Cuts said that, because the DWP’s reviews only relate to suicides or alleged suicides and were triggered by regional managers within the benefit system, the number of deaths was likely to be far higher than the 60 cases that reached review.
Anita Bellows, of Disabled People Against Cuts, said:
“The triage for advising whether a peer review is to be carried out is done by regional managers at seven regional centres, who may not have an interest in putting them forward. Also, the guidance for peer review is focused on suicide, which does not cover people like David Clapson.”
She called on the DWP to open a proper investigation into the deaths, and include evidence from medical experts.
“These should be public documents” she said. “They are also only focused on the process. There are no medical experts on it.”
The DWP said it was unable to disclose the names of individuals under review because of provisions of the Social Security Administration Act.
However, the Mental Welfare Commission of Scotland, a Scottish government-funded watchdog, published its comprehensive review of the suicide of a claimant known only as Ms DE this year. The MWCS concluded that the WCA process and the subsequent denial of ESA was at least a “major factor in her decision to take her own life”. It concluded that the work capability assessment process was flawed and needed to be more sensitive to mental health issues.
Colin McKay, chief executive of the Mental Welfare Commission of Scotland, said he was disappointed with the DWP response to the report on Ms DE, who died on 31 December 2011.
“Certainly, nothing in what they said gave us confidence that if another Ms DE was claiming benefit, the outcome would be any different,” he said. “If the number of deaths are 60, that’s a lot. You would expect any organisation experiencing deaths as the potential consequences of their actions would be seriously considering whether they needed to do anything differently.”
This year a whistleblower tasked with getting claimants out of the ESA sickness benefit told the Guardian that some of her clients were homeless, many had extreme mental health problems – including paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and autism – and some were “starving” and extremely depressed after having benefits stopped. “Almost every day one of my clients mentioned feelings of suicide to me” she said.
Mind released research on Thursday that found that people with mental illness were having their benefit cut more than those with other illnesses. It also found 83% of those with mental health problems surveyed said their self-esteem had worsened, and 76% said they felt less able to work as a result of DWP back-to-work schemes.
The DWP said: “We take these matters extremely seriously, which is why we carry out peer reviews in certain cases to establish whether anything should have been done differently. However, a peer review in itself does not automatically mean the department was at fault.
“Since its introduction in 2008 there have been four independent reviews of the work capability assessment and we have made significant improvements to make it better, fairer and more accurate.”
Source – Welfare Weekly, 14 Dec 201
A scandalous picture of suffering, trauma and destitution is painted by a former Work Programme adviser who was tasked with getting claimants off the employment and support allowance (ESA) sickness benefit.
Speaking to the press for the first time since she quit the job last year, Anna Shaw (not her real name) says:
“Some of my clients were homeless, and very many of them had had their money stopped and were literally starving and extremely stressed. Many had extreme mental health conditions, including paranoid schizophrenia, psychosis, bipolar disorder and autism.
One guy [diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and homeless] came to see me for the first appointment and mentioned that he had not eaten for five days. I offered him my lunch, thinking he would refuse it out of pride, and he fell upon it like a wild animal. I’ve not seen a human being eat like that before.”
Shaw can only speak out anonymously, because when she resigned, after just a few months in the job, her employer made her sign a confidentiality clause.
She believed that the majority of her ESA caseload of about 100 clients were not well enough to have been on the government’s welfare-to-work Work Programme, but should instead have been signposted to charities that could support them with their multiple problems.
“Almost every day one of my clients mentioned feelings of suicide to me,” she says. Shaw says she received no training in working with people with mental health issues or physical disabilities.
Under the government’s welfare reforms, Shaw’s clients would have completed a controversial test, called the work capability assessment (WCA), currently conducted by contractor Atos, and been placed in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of ESA because they were judged capable of working, albeit with appropriate support.
Shaw’s employer was subcontracted by one of the 18 “prime providers” the government pays to implement its Work Programme to get jobless people into employment. However, Shaw says she was never given a copy of her clients’ WCA, which details their health conditions, so it was difficult to provide the support they needed.
Shaw thinks many of her ESA claimants wanted to work, but the “fundamental issues” – their physical and mental disabilities, often coupled with situations such as homelessness or domestic abuse – were not dealt with.
“Every person who came in needed specialist help on a whole range of things, and to be supported, not under imminent threat of losing their benefit the whole time.”
She believes many of her clients had been wrongly assessed as fit to work. “I had a woman with multiple sclerosis who had been domestically abused and was suffering from very severe depression and anxiety, and she had a degenerative condition and she was deemed fit for work,” she says. “I gave people advice under the radar about how to appeal … but it was absolutely not in our remit to encourage people to appeal.”
The most recent government figures (to June 2014) show that only 2% of longer-term ESA claimants find sustained employment. Independent research by the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion has found that disabled people are about half as likely to find employment as non-disabled people. Last week, a report suggested that officials were considering cutting ESA, which is paid to around 2 million people, by as much as £30 a week as the chancellor, George Osborne, seeks a £12bn cut in the welfare bill.
Shaw says she was expected to enrol claimants on back-to-work courses.
“It was very much ticking boxes. My managers were just obsessed with compliance with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). We would be penalised as an organisation if we didn’t sanction people who failed to show up… but with ESA they realised there was very little chance of getting these people into work. They were kind of parked.”
In the past year, sanctions for ESA claimants who fail to turn up for interviews with their job adviser have increased more than sevenfold. In each case, claimants lost at least one week of their benefit money, even if they said they were too ill to get to an appointment.
“One minute we had to sanction and the next minute we were told absolutely not to sanction,” says Shaw. “I think this was in response to [hostile coverage to sanctions in] the press… so the advice was given that we weren’t sanctioning them but we weren’t to let them know we weren’t sanctioning them… so they would come for appointments.”
According to one of Shaw’s former colleagues who is still working for the organisation, sanctioning has intensified.
“She said: ‘It’s got a lot worse since you left and now we’re having to sanction all the ESA claimants if they don’t turn up for appointments,’” says Shaw.
Two months ago, the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, stated that the WP “revolutionises the way we provide support to those who are the hardest to help, supporting a move from dependency to independence and getting people into work so that they have financial security for the future”.
But Shaw’s revelations contradict the ministerial architect of welfare reform. She says:
“I felt that my job was really a non-job and as long as I ticked the boxes, they didn’t really care what I did with them… but they missed the point that these were actually human beings that I was coming into contact with, and going home every night wondering if these people were still alive.”
Shaw’s claims are backed up by a recent report, Fulfilling Potential, compiled by a WP client, Catherine Hale , with support from Mind and the Centre for Welfare Reform.
Of the 500 people on ESA who responded to an online survey, 82% said their WP provider made no effort to adapt jobs on offer or make it easier for them to work. Only 7% said their adviser had a copy of their WCA.
A spokesman for the DWP says Work Programme providers “have the freedom to design any work-related activity so it is appropriate to the person’s condition”, and the DWP “offers more money to providers for helping the hardest-to-help groups into work, such as people on ESA”.
But there is no breakdown of how much of the £1.37bn WP expenditure from June 2011 to 31 March 2014 was spent on helping ESA claimants. He insists that sanctions are “used only as a last resort” and “about 99% of ESA claimants don’t get a sanction”. He adds that the DWP is looking at how to share information about clients’ medical conditions with WP advisers.
Source – The Guardian, 05 Nov 2014
Up to 212,000 people have been ‘beaten up for being on benefits’ as a direct result of the despicable ‘scrounger’ rhetoric in the media and ‘poverty porn’ TV programmes, a shocking new survey reveals today.
A survey by YouGov reveals the devastating impact of newspaper benefits propaganda, and ‘poverty porn’ programmes like Channel 4’s Benefits Street, on some of Britain’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
YouGov asked 2,352 benefit claimants:
“Have you ever been verbally or physically abused because you are on benefits?”
15% said they had experienced verbal abuse and 4% admitted they had been physically assaulted.
If the survey had asked every single benefit claimant in the UK it would suggest that nearly 212,000 have been physically assaulted.
6% of respondents said their children had been victims of bullies, while 16% said they had been turned down for a home for being in receipt of benefits.
Campaigners and charities are now calling on the media and the government to end their use of socially divisive language, which is turning British society against itself.
Philipp Newis from the Who Benefits? campaign told the Daily Mirror:
“We’ve heard a lot of negative talk from politicians about benefit claimants, even though these are people who might need support for all sorts of reasons.
“Around 4.3million families receiving benefits are in work, but earning too little to get by.
“Many others are ill, caring for a loved one or have lost their job. It could happen to any one of us.”
The survey was carried out by YouGov on behalf of a number of charities including Gingerbread, MIND and the Children’s Society.
Its findings will be sent to a report which is investigating whether benefit claimants are being treated like second-class citizens.
Source – Welfare News Service, 09 Sept 2014
Hundreds of thousands of employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants face being stripped of their benefits if they refuse to undergo treatment for anxiety and depression, under radical plans being proposed by ministers.
Existing welfare rules mean it is not possible to require claimants to have treatment, such as therapy or counselling, as a condition of receiving ESA. However, it has emerged that the roll-out of further mandatory pilot schemes are planned over the next few weeks.
One trial began last month, looking at combining “talking therapies” with employment support. Three further trials being launched this summer are intended to test different ways of linking mental health services with support for benefit claimants seeking work:
- Using group work “to build self-efficacy and resilience to setbacks” faced by job seekers
- Providing access to online mental health and work assessment and support
- Third parties, commissioned by Jobcentre Plus, to provide telephone-based psychological and employment-related support
The aim is to get people with mental health problems off benefits and back into work, so saving the government crucial spending on the welfare bill.
The proposal will, however, raise ethical questions about whether the state should have the power to force patients to undergo treatment. According to the statistics, 46% of ESA claimants have mental health problems.
The Telegraph claims a senior government source told them:
“We know that depression and anxiety are treatable conditions. Cognitive behavioural therapies work and they get people stable again but you can’t mandate people to take that treatment.
“But there are loads of people who claim ESA who undergo no treatment whatsoever. It is bizarre. This is a real problem because we want people to get better.
“These are areas we need to explore. The taxpayer has committed a lot of money but the idea was never to sustain them for years and years on benefit. We think it’s time for a rethink.”
Tom Pollard, policy and campaigns manager at Mind, the mental health charity, said:
“If people are not getting access to the support they need, the government should address levels of funding for mental health services rather than putting even more pressure on those supported by benefits and not currently well enough to work.
“Talking therapies can be effective, but it is often a combination of treatments which allow people to best manage their symptoms and engaging in therapy should be voluntary.”
Norman Lamb, the Lib Dem health minister, said mandating mental health treatment for benefit claimants would not work and was “not a sensible idea”.
“The idea that you frogmarch someone into therapy with the threat of a loss of benefits simply won’t work,” he said. “It is not a question of whether tough love is a good concept.
“You actually need someone to go into therapy willingly.”
Read the full story in The Telegraph
Source – Benefits & Work, 14 July 2014
Employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants in the work-related activity group (WRAG) are being subjected to a massively increased sanctions regime that deliberately targets the most vulnerable. Sanctions, primarily aimed at claimants on the work programme who have mental health conditions or learning difficulties, have quadrupled in the course of a year, even though referrals to the programme have fallen by 43%.
The number of sanctions rose from 1,102 a month in December 2012 to 4,789 a month in December 2013, the most recent date figures are available for.
The vast majority of sanctions are imposed for failing to participate in work-related activity whilst on the work programme, which thousands of ESA claimants are forced to join every month in spite of overwhelming evidence that it does not improve their chances of getting a job.
The massive rise in sanctions, however, cannot be explained by a sudden huge surge in the number of claimants in the WRAG.
In fact, the number of claimants in the WRAG increased by just 21% between November 2012 to November 2013, from 460,160 to 558,960.
Indeed, between August and November 2013 the number of claimants in the WRAG actually fell slightly, from 562,620 to 558,960. Yet the number of claimants sanctioned in this period shot up by a staggering 75% from 2,193 to 3,837.
Nor can the rise in sanctions be explained by a corresponding increase in the numbers of ESA claimants being forced onto the work programme.
In fact, the rate at which ESA claimants get pushed onto the work programme has fallen dramatically over the same period. 8,290 claimant were put onto the work programme in December 2012. This fell to just 4,700 in December 2013, a drop of 43%.
Yet sanctions increased fourfold.
And the main targets of those sanctions are claimants with mental health conditions or learning difficulties. Back in April we pointed out that the proportion of this group receiving a sanction had risen from 35% of sanctioned claimants in 2009 to a massive 58% by June 2013.
That figure has now increased again to 62% in December 2013, even though claimants with these conditions make up just 50% of the work-related activity group.
Also back in April the DWP told us:
“It’s only right that people should do everything they can to move off benefits and into work if they are able. Sanctions are only used as a last resort and we have robust procedures in place to protect vulnerable people, with a number of safeguards built into the system.
Yet many people will wonder, if sanctions are only being used as a last resort, what possible explanation there can be for the sudden massive increase in the number being handed out?
And if safeguards are built into the system, why are claimants with mental health conditions increasingly over-represented on the roster of sanctioned individuals?
The DWP also told us in April:
“Everyone has the right to appeal a sanction decision if they disagree with it.”
Which is entirely true. But a Citizens Advice Scotland report on sanctions released yesterday reveals that “many people who are hit by a sanction are not told the reason for it, or how to appeal against it”.
The DWP have good reason to keep people in the dark about their appeal rights. According to the ‘Fulfilling potential? ESA and the fate of the work-related activity group’ report released last month by Mind, tribunals now uphold almost nine out of ten ESA and JSA sanctions appeals.
Such a huge proportion of overturned decisions is ample proof of the savagery of the sanctions regime. But for many people, especially vulnerable claimants suddenly struggling to survive on drastically reduced benefits and no longer able to get legal aid for help with tribunals, coping with the complex new appeal system is an impossibility.
According to the Mind report, written by Catherine Hale, – herself an ESA claimant:
“ . . . findings suggest that the regime of conditionality and sanctions has left participants in the WRAG fearful , demoralised and further away from achieving their work-related goals or participating in society than when they started.”
The report also found that in 87% of cases of claimants failing to participate in a mandatory work-related activity, the reason was related to their health condition, including 19% who had missed an activity because of a medical appointment.
Such cynical targeting of vulnerable claimants is clearly counter-productive in terms of moving them off benefits and into work.
But there is one very likely explanation for the increasing use of sanctions.
Leaked documents obtained by the BBC last month revealed that the DWP expect the cost of ESA to rise by almost £13bn by 2018/19. The documents warn that the increase is “one of the largest fiscal risks currently facing the government” and could cause it to breach its self-imposed benefits cap.
One of the documents also warns that, in terms of cutting costs, there is “not much low-hanging fruit left“.
ESA claimants with mental health conditions are, however, one remaining low-hanging fruit that IDS and his increasingly vicious and shambolic department are determined to pluck as heavily and as quickly as they possibly can.
Source – Benefits & Work, 01 July 2014