The Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) have published new, updated figures yesterday, following on from the recent response from a Freedom of Information request from me, which show that over 70,000 Employment Support Allowance claimants have been sanctioned since the system was introduced in December 2012, indicating a huge rise from previous figures.
This is an horrifyingly high number, especially in light of the fact that this group is comprised of people who qualify for this benefit because they have been deemed unfit for work by qualified doctors and this has been further verified by the highly controversial state Work Capability Assessment (WCA).
The statistical release also shows that over a third of sanction decisions (over 23,000) were successfully challenged.
The sanction decisions are from December 2012 to June 2015, with the total at 70,452 for the following reasons –
- 11,238 applied for failure to attend a mandatory interview; and
- 59,219 applied for failure to participate in work related activity.
- 49,269 decisions were reviewed with 21,831 decisions withdrawn;
- 2,109 decisions were reconsidered with 1,288 decisions overturned; and
- 568 decisions were appealed with 185 appeals being successful. (But see: As predicted, Mandatory Review has effectively destroyed independent Tribunals).
This indicates quite clearly that sanctions are being applied unfairly and unreasonably, by the DWP’s own standards, with almost half being withdrawn when reviewed – that’s 21,831 wrongful sanctions, and more than half of the decisions that progressed to mandatory review were overturned.
There has been a rise of over 600 per cent in sanctions imposed on people with mental health problems claiming ESA. The mental health charity Mind have also analysed the figures and found that 19,259 people with mental illness had their benefits stopped under sanction in 2014-15 compared to just 2,507 in 2011-12 – a 668 per cent rise.
Research by the charity earlier this year found that 83 per cent of people on the Government’s Work Programme because of their mental health problems believed the scheme had made those problems worse.
76 per cent of the same group also said the scheme, which is enforced by sanctions, had made them actually less able to work than before they were allocated to it. Yet earlier this month, Priti Patel claimed that there was “no evidence” to suggest that claimants with mental health problems were being sanctioned more than anyone else. She also implied that there is “no evidence” that sanctions may damage people’s mental health. Yet it’s difficult to imagine how the constant threat of and reality of having lifeline income removed – money that is essential for meeting basic needs – doesn’t damage mental health.
Sanctions are the blatant and brutal use of behaviour modification techniques – using punishment to coerce people into “behavioural change”, regardless of a person’s circumstances, or the reasons why they may need to claim financial support.
Under the sanctions system introduced by Iain Duncan Smith, people can lose their lifeline benefits for up to three years if they fail to meet the government’s “requirements for jobseekers.”
However, the government’s own ESA eligibility criteria is at odds with the reasons provided for sanctioning people claiming this lifeline benefit: “You may get Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) if your illness or disability affects your ability to work.” That would also include “work-related activity.”
The Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) – the group for people found unfit for work but thought to be capable of “preparing for work” at some point in the future – was never planned to treat the long-term ill as if they had a bad cold.
These are people who have been deemed “unfit for work by their own doctors and by the state via the WCA. As Declan Gaffney, analyst of the labor market and social security has pointed out, the person who introduced the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) – Paul Gregg – said that the typical duration of people claiming this component of ESA was always estimated to be at least two years.
But whilst you’re in the work-related activity group, the DWP can sanction you if:
- you don’t go to a work-focused interview
- you go, but don’t take part in your interview
- you don’t take part in a compulsory work-related activity that you’ve been asked to do
In order to qualify for ESA, a person has been deemed unfit for work by their doctor. To continue claiming ESA, a person must also be assessed by the state as unable to work, too. Except when they are told to carry out mandatory work-related activities. Even if someone is able to carry out some tasks sometimes, to make activities mandatory is to disregard the fact that some people in this group are very seriously ill, others have serious, chronic conditions that fluctuate – the symptoms vary from day-to-day, week to week, according to disease activity, and mental health problems are always unpredictable in terms of how they may affect people.
Iain Duncan Smith has recently signaled a fresh attack on disabled people’s vital benefits. He described ESA as “fundamentally flawed” and make clear that he plans to force more sick and disabled people off benefits and into work. George Osborne had announced in June that people on ESA will lose £30-a-week in the latest round of cuts to “encourage” them back into work.
It’s about time the government acknowledged that sanctions are state-inflicted punishments, rather than persisting in employing gaslighting techniques, attempting to undermine public perceptions and invalidate claimant’s experiences of brutal policies, by claiming sanctions are designed to “help”, “support” or “encourage” people to work. If the Conservatives were confident that sanctions are “fair” and effective, they wouldn’t need to hide behind such bland doublespeak.
In his conference speech Duncan Smith made it clear he wants to go much further and push thousands of people off ESA altogether.
“When ESA was introduced it was intended to be a short term benefit,” he said. [I’ve already pointed out previously that ESA was never intended to be “short term” at all.]
“We need to look at the system and in particular the assessment we use for ESA.” That comment fills many with a feeling of deep foreboding.
If this government genuinely cared about “supporting” people who are struggling to work due to illness or disability, they wouldn’t sanction, time limit, or directly cut lifeline benefits. Nor would they have annihilated in-work support such as Access to Work. Nor would we be seeing specialist disability employment advisors withdrawn from jobcenters.
Sanctioning is a cruel state punishment allegedly designed to bring about “behaviour change” so that people claiming support are “compliant” with conditionality rules. These are people who the DWP have already conceded are not fit for work.
Sanctions include the removal of lifeline benefits, which were originally calculated to meet only basic needs, such as food, fuel and shelter. The underpinning paternalist assumption is that sick and disabled people claim benefits because of “faulty behaviours” that warrant state “correction”, rather than needing to claim lifeline benefits because they are unable to work, or because of adverse labor market conditions.
Such punishment can never “help” people into work by reducing them to a struggle meeting their basic survival needs. As Abraham Maslow informs us, if we are reduced to struggling to meet our basic physical needs, we can’t be “incentivised” or motivated to meet higher level psychosocial ones.
Sanctions are ineffective as an incentive. They may well encourage rule-following and compliance, but they don’t help people into secure, sustainable employment that provides a wage that is sufficient to ensure an adequate standard of living. Nor do they cure serious chronic health conditions and disability.
Sick and disabled people face higher costs of living than others. The recognition of this is the reason why ESA is at a higher rate than jobseekers allowance. To place sick and disabled people in situations where they are struggling to meet basic needs is exceptionally cruel, and will invariably cause distress, harm and will very likely have an adverse impact on existing illness and health problems.
Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone
This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.