This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 14th April 2014
There has been a 60% spike in the number of people seeking advice about paying bills as a result of increases in the length of benefit sanctions, according to the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB).
A year after the limits were introduced, Ipsos Mori research found a third of people affected have been forced to cut back on essential items. Around 25% have looked for a job after being hit by the cap, while 45% plan to do so in future. The survey looked at 1,000 people out of more than 38,600 households that have been caught by the new rules.
The government extended the period Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) is withheld from one week to four weeks last October. There have been repeated reports that JSA claimants feel they have suddenly lost benefit on the basis of arbitrary decisions for which they have been given no warning or little explanation.
An independent review of the sanctions regime commissioned by DWP is yet to be published, but the latest CAB figures suggest there is an urgency to the issue that ministers have yet to grasp. Polls suggest the DWP would feel under little pressure to soften any aspect of the welfare regime.
The CAB – which is a free advice service – said that since the sanctions regime was toughened, it has helped clients with over 15,000 JSA sanction problems. The increase in the numbers seeking help is disproportionate to the increase in the number of sanctions being applied by the DWP.
Under the previous one-week sanction claimants could cope, the CAB said, but a four-week withdrawal of access to benefit led people into desperate measures including approaching loan sharks.
Publishing its research, the CAB said: “People are struggling to pay their bills, rent and put food on the table. Many clients are forced to turn to food banks and even payday loan companies. With all this on their plate people are distracted from looking for a job, so they’re less likely to get into work.”
The CAB said: “From October to December last year one in four Citizens Advice clients with a JSA sanction problem had dependent children, one in four identified as being disabled or suffering from a long-term health condition, one in six also had a debt problem, and one in 10 had issues with rent arrears or threat or reality of homelessness.”
The chief executive of CAB, Gillian Guy, said: “The minimum four-week sanction is setting people up to fail and creating a barrier which can stop them from looking for work. Four weeks is a long time to go without money to get by and people are struggling to make ends meet.
“The success rate of sanction appeals reveals a culture of ‘sanction first and ask questions later’. This is not only ineffective and a huge waste of money but also has a devastating effect on thousands of people’s lives.
“People need a system that can take into account their situation, set suitable work search requirements and, where necessary, apply sanctions at a level that won’t limit their chances of employment.
“To date, work programme contractors have been responsible for twice as many sanctions on the people referred to them as they have successfully helped people find work. Combined with CAB’s latest figures this paints the strongest picture yet that the system is not working as it should.”
CAB pointed out that under universal credit – the new benefit integrating many existing benefits including JSA – Jobcentre staff are to be given greater flexibility in deciding the length of benefits. The CAB asked how it was possible to give staff flexibility for the incoming benefit system, but not for the current one.
Ian is a 43-year-old single father of two (aged nine and 12) living in Hastings. He has been on long-term sick leave for depression but, following a work capability assessment by Atos, was told he did not have enough points and was moved onto JSA.
Ian was put on to the work programme, though due to a staff mix-up by Pertemps he has not been receiving support to find work. He has been filling in his work-search forms and giving them to the Jobcentre. Then last Thursday Ian was told he had been given a four-week sanction for not giving enough work-search detail. He was told there were six cleaning jobs for which he could have applied, but he said that they were early morning jobs that did not fit with his responsibilities to his children.
He was given no notice or warning that he was doing anything inadequate about his work search. The money – £72 a week – just didn’t appear.
“I’ve been left high and dry. I filled in the work-search form as usual, but this time they’ve said it’s not enough. Thursday/Friday I was at rock bottom, I was in a total state. I was just thinking, where am I going to get money from?
“I had a water bill due on Friday, but the direct debit bounced as no money had gone in. I’m worried about my rent, as I don’t know if my housing benefit will come in now I’ve been sanctioned. Then at 5pm on Friday I got a hardship payment through so I can look after my kids. The crux of the issue is that they should give you some warning or notice that they are going to deduct some money. Otherwise the only two options at the end of the day are to borrow money or commit a crime.”
He adds that he took out a £100 emergency loan that will require repayment of £160. Ian is appealing his sanction, as he has a letter from Pertemps stating he has not been getting the support he should have due to an administrative mix-up.
Source – Welfare News Service 14 April 2014