A 62-year-old woman says that she’s been forced to leave her home after the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) sanctioned her – cut her benefits – for turning up late for a meeting.
Faith Hurford, from Hillesley near Stroud, who suffers with a range of medical conditions that haven’t been disclosed, says the benefit sanction means she is unable to afford the rent and has to move away from her home because of the DWP’s callous and unfair decision.
The Stroud News and Journal reports that despite her health problems, Faith had to travel a staggering 15 miles (one way) to attend a meeting about her Universal Credit claim in Stroud.
Due to heat, the sheer distance she had to cycle, as well as her chronic health issues, Faith was forced to stop and take a break at a Sainbury’s store to recover her energy, before continuing the arduous journey.
This meant that Faith turned up late for the appointment and was subsequently sanctioned for failing to turn up for the meeting on time.
Faith described the sanction as “unlawful” and tried to appeal the harsh ruling, but the loss of benefit meant she could no longer afford the rent and has to move away to Nailsworth.
“I had been a supporter of Universal Credit before – it helps you look for work and it’s simpler to use – but that sanction was unlawful.
“By the time I got to Sainsbury’s after hours of cycling I couldn’t go any further, I was completely dazed.”
Faith says that she tried to explain the reason for her lateness but her reasonable appeals fell on deaf ears.
She says that the sanction has cost her nearly £200 in lost benefit payments.
“You need to take a person’s circumstances into account. The effort I went to was not recognised in any shape or form.
“I can’t recover from a sanction like that, I’m on a shoestring. I grow my own veg, I’ve reduced my food intake. There’s nothing else I can do,” she said, adding “I’ve fallen behind on rent and I can’t afford this place now. I’ve got to move out.”
Faith is currently looking for a new place to live while waiting to hear back about an appeal lodged with the social security tribunal.
Sanctions on welfare payments which have caused thousands of claimants to fall into hardship are being handed out without evidence that they actually work. The Department for Work and Pensions doesn’t even monitor and analyse its own data, making claims that sanctions “work” from an evidence-free zone.
There is no evidence that sanctions work as the government insists they do
A report published earlier this year by the WelCond project, led by the University of York and involving the Universities of Glasgow, Sheffield, Salford, Sheffield Hallam and Heriot-Watt, analysed the effectiveness, impact and ethics of welfare conditionality from 2013 to 2018.
The findings of this report’s adds more evidence to a substantial and growing body that welfare conditionality within the social security system is largely ineffective and that benefits sanctions have severe and negative impacts on personal, financial and health outcomes, including mental health.
The report suggests that too much emphasis is being placed on negative consequences for not being engaged in job-seeking activities and not enough emphasis on more positive and individualised work-shaping activities to help people access work that they wish to be in.
In 2016 the British Psychological Society (BPS) and a range of allied organisations (British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies (BABCP), British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), British Psychoanalytic Council (BPC)), stated a very clear position against welfare sanctions, in response to reports of a lack of efficacy and potential harm to mental health, as outlined in their 2016 joint response.
The organisations say that key concerns remain that not only is there no clear evidence that welfare sanctions are effective, but that they can have such negative effects on a range of outcomes including mental health.
They go on to say “We continue to call on the Government to address these concerns, investigate how the jobcentre systems and requirements may themselves be exacerbating mental health problems and consider suspending the use of sanctions subject to the outcomes of an independent review.”
The collective organisations – BPS, BACP, BPC, BABCP and UKCP – are the UK’s leading professional associations for psychological therapies, representing over 110,000 psychologists, counsellors, psychotherapists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists who practise psychotherapy and counselling.
In 2016, even the government’s technocratic team of behavioural economists and policy gurus at the Nudge Unit did a u-turn on benefit sanctions. They said that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be “counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from neoliberal behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place.
It’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning – psycho-coercion – which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income which was originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people into work.”
Commons Select Committee inquiry into sanctions
The Work and Pensions Committee has published a report this month regarding the findings of an ongoing inquiry into welfare conditionality and sanctions. They say:
“The human cost of continuing to apply the existing regime of benefit sanctions – the ‘only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated’ – appears simply too high. The evidence that it is achieving its aims is at best mixed, and at worst showing a policy that appears ‘arbitrarily punitive’.”
The Committee say in their report that the Coalition Government “had little or no understanding of the likely impact of a tougher sanctions regime” when it introduced it in 2012 with the stated aim, as the NAO describes it, that “benefits, employment support and conditions and sanctions together lead to employment.”
At that point, the Government promised to review the reform’s impact and whether it was achieving its aims on an ongoing basis. But six years later, Government “is [still] none the wiser.”
In their report, the select committee urge the government to reassess the sanctions regime. However, there is no evidence they ever assessed it in the first place.
Commenting on the Work and Pensions Committee inquiry, Chair Frank Field MP says:
“We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned. They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel.
While none of them told us that there should be no benefit sanctions at all, it can only be right for the Government to take a long hard look at what is going on. If their stories were rare it would be unacceptable, but the Government has no idea how many more people out there are suffering in similar circumstances. In fact, it has kept itself in the dark about any of the impacts of the major reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012.
The time is long overdue for the Government to assess the evidence and then have the courage of its reform convictions to say, where it is right to do so, ’this policy is not achieving its aims, it is not working, and the cost is too high: We will change it.”
Yes, we must.
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