The recent Public Accounts Select Committee report into the impact of benefit sanctions has confirmed what many working on the front line against poverty have long known. Here Liam Purcell from End Hunger UK partner organisation Church Action on Poverty explains why the government must rethink sanctions.
On 21 February, yet another voice called on the Government to rethink the harmful, unfair regime of benefit sanctions. This time, the call is coming from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). This is one of the most influential MP committees in Parliament, so we are very pleased to see them reinforcing the message that has already been sent by other committees and even by the Department for Work and Pension’s own advisers.
Churches and Christian campaigners have worked hard to make that call heard. Since Church Action on Poverty started calling for a review of sanctions in 2013, over 3,000 of our supporters have emailed their MPs about sanctions; several national churches launched their owncampaign on the issue; and high-profile church leaders have spoken out about the removal of our benefits safety net. Public pressure like this has undoubtedly played its part in getting politicians to pay attention. We’re grateful to everyone who has taken part – now we need to keep up the pressure and make sure the Government listens.
The PAC say the Government should trial a ‘yellow card’ system, so people get a warning and chance to appeal rather than having their benefits stopped straight away. This would be a welcome step but doesn’t address the core injustice of a system that makes people destitute for minor ‘offences’ like being late for a meeting. It also seems likely that the Government will respond by simply pointing to a trial they have already carried out in Scotland. Initial reports from that trial suggest that few people have taken the opportunity to appeal; our experience with the wider benefits system is that bureaucracy and poor communication often discourage people from appealing.
They ask the Government to monitor regional variation in sanction rates and take-up of exemptions. It is clearly unfair that more people are being sanctioned in some areas than others, and that vulnerable people may be missing out on their right to an exemption. The PAC points out that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has not analysed these problem. This reflects a running theme in our benefits campaigning: the DWP gathers no meaningful evidence or data to support its policies, while dismissing the mountains of evidence gathered by almost everybody else. It can’t be allowed to continue.
They say the DWP must improve its data systems and gather evidence of the wider impact of sanctions. This backs up calls by the National Audit Office, who found that the DWP has no evidence to support its frequent claims that sanctions help people to find work. We weren’t surprised by this – the DWP have been rebuked several times for misusing statistics, and even printed made-up case studies in a brochure to support their claims about sanctions. They were in the business of ‘fake news’ long before the term became fashionable!
We’re now waiting to see the Government’s response to this latest call. Hopefully they will engage properly this time, rather than trying to duck the issue as they have until now. We’ll continue our campaigning through End Hunger UK – one of the goals of the coalition is “a commitment to review the policy on benefit sanctions to ensure that it is proportionate and does not cause undue harm or destitution to those affected.”
We’ll continue because this is a vitally important issue. From the simple injustice of people being sanctioned for stupid reasons, through to the alarming number of people who have died after being sanctioned, this is an issue that must urgently be addressed. Back in 2013, in ourWalking the Breadline report, Stephen from Manchester spoke about the terrible impact sanctions had on him:
“I felt really low: suicidal, depressed. I just thought that no-one was helping or caring. If I’m trying hard and following all the rules, and they won’t even pay you to survive, you feel like there’s no point. So why should you even try?”
Nobody should be made to go to bed hungry through deliberate government policy. Join End Hunger UK and help us challenge this injustice!