Another week, more blameless victims of the coalition government’s austerity drive.
Manchester Citizen’s Advice Bureau published a study on the effects of sanctions on Monday, showing how poorly they are applied and how damaging they are to a person’s ability to live a reasonable life.
The CAB surveyed people across the UK and found a pattern of a lack of information on and understanding of sanctions, while many blamed their benefits being removed on an advisor’s very narrow interpretation of the rules or reasons that were beyond their control.
Don’t think this was grumbling by those who had been caught out; the report shows that “more than half the respondents said they had not received any information about how to appeal against the sanction.
“Nonetheless, three-fifths (62%) of respondents had appealed. One third of these appeals had been successful and a further 23% of those who had appealed were still waiting to hear the outcome.”
A third were able to overturn their sanctions, and more were on their way.
The much-criticised Work Capability Assessment (WCA) for disabled people has a lower successful appeals rate, and only two weeks ago David Cameron said that its provider, Atos, had “to improve the quality of decision-making” as a result, a damning judgement from a Prime Minister with political capital tied up in the issue.
Sanctions are handed out on the say-so of individual Jobcentre or Work Programme advisors (with little apparent scrutiny from the higher-ups) who have often been under pressure to increase their numbers, and sometimes had direct targets given to them which, if missed, could lead to their pay being affected.
It is not widely known that 97% of all DWP staff are employed under contracts which include bonuses, as revealed to UnemployedNet through a Freedom of Information request. Any hint that these might not be paid if sanctioning is lower than expected would be likely to boost the rate significantly.
The government claims to want to make unemployment more like work – this is supposedly behind the move to monthly benefit payments through Universal Credit and the proposal to make full-time jobsearch mandatory – but work allows for absence through sickness and family responsibilities and still pays employees when leave is taken.
Any employer that tried to impose the loss of a month’s salary on an employee for not attending a single meeting would be laughed out of an employment tribunal if it were challenged. And yet the government is presiding over exactly this system, not in secret but crowing delightedly about it at every opportunity.
These problematic application methods and the high level of successful appeals surely show that sanctions are being mishandled so widely that they need to be suspended pending an improvement, or preferrably abandoned all together.
If you still doubt this you might like to check the Tumblr account Stupid Sanctions, which brings together some of the more ridiculous reasons for stopping benefits.
These include a person who informed their jobcentre that they were starting work in two weeks getting sanctioned for not looking for work during those final two weeks, one who had a heart attack during an assessment being sanctioned for not completing the assessment, and another who had benefits removed because a job interview overran and caused them to be nine minutes late for their jobcentre appointment.
Those who question the sources of this information should look more closely; as well as MPs and councillors, they include The Mail, not usually on the side of claimants.
And this hasn’t even accounted for the biggest problem of all, the terrible effect of sanctions on individuals, some of which were publicised in another report released this week by The Children’s Society.
It found that, among the UK’s three million poor children, itself a shameful number in a wealthy society, more than half said their home was too cold last winter, three-quarters said they often worried about money, and a quarter said their house had damp or mould.
More than half of poor children felt their poverty as an embarrassment, and 14% reported being bullied as a result of it, showing that the attitude of the government and some newspapers to the poor can filter through parents to their children and cause suffering.
Even given the rise of in-work poverty as wages have not kept pace with inflation for the last five years, poverty is disproportionately likely to be related to welfare, as The Trussel Trust food bank provider has pointed out when finding that nearly half of its users were forced to them through benefit problems including sanctions, delays and Ian Duncan Smith’s cuts.
Even if you believe that a proportion of unemployed people are morally lacking and deserve every bit of punishment that comes their way, extending this punishment to wholly blameless children in a way that shapes their futures must be a step too far.
Making these new victims cannot be a reasonable way for a rich and civilised society to behave.