- Politics and Social Issues
UK Benefits Sanctions: Handing Out Hardship
One political hot potato that is never far from the headlines these days is the coalition government’s crackdown on those unfortunate enough to be out of work and claiming benefits at a time of high unemployment. The government’s sanctions regime, which was introduced in October 2012, stops benefit entitlement to those jobseekers deemed not to be fulfilling their side of the jobseekers’ agreement.
Removing benefits from those who do not follow the rules meticulously may have appeased the jaw-gnashing ‘serves them right’ brigade, who see all benefit claimants as scroungers, a view that has been reinforced by such TV ‘documentaries’ as Benefits Street and On Benefits and Proud. The reality is that these sanctions have created hardship and misery across the entire spectrum of the UK’s two million unemployed; even among those who are doing everything in their power to find work.
Of course it is right that claimants should demonstrate that they complying with their side of the jobseekers’ agreement to which they signed up. In researching this article, however, I discovered that sanctions have sometimes been imposed on the most frivolous, and even ridiculous grounds.
Stereotyping does not help
My own experience
I was unfortunate enough to be among the ranks of the unemployed recently, and during that time I felt the wrath of the sanction imposer at first hand, having been given a two week benefit suspension for missing an appointment. I had been removed from a government funded business start-up scheme (more of that in a later hub), and when I returned to Jobseekers’ Allowance (JSA), I was given a bundle of paperwork, inside which was an appointment for a meeting with my adviser. I overlooked this and missed the appointment. My partner and I had to endure two weeks of severe hardship as a result.
But if a claimant has ‘form’, i.e., a previous sanction against his or her name, the next one is more punitive. I learned this when I signed on one day, and I was faced with the very real prospect of a thirteen week sanction. Had common sense prevailed, however, this sanction would never have even left the starting blocks, and considerable worry and distress to me and my partner would have been avoided. Here’s what happened.
I went into the jobcentre to sign on at my appointed time, and the adviser I saw that morning, with whom I’d had a personality clash two weeks earlier, did not think my efforts to find work were sufficient. I pointed out that there were twenty-one items of evidence in my current job diary, but there had been only seventeen in the one for the previous two weeks, and this had been deemed acceptable.
I was confident that in highlighting this clear discrepancy I would put an end to the matter, but I reckoned without the new-found zeal with which jobcentre advisers were ordered to root out even the slightest premise for imposing a sanction. I was told that I was being referred to a manager, and that I should return at 2.30 that afternoon.
I broke this news to my partner when I got home, and we spent an anxious few hours contemplating what might be, but I reassured her that the evidence was in my favour and they couldn’t argue with that. Boy was I wrong.
How sanctions have soared
These two charts paint a stark picture of how the number of sanctions being issued each month has rocketed. Monthly sanction totals imposed between 2000 and 2002 peaks at just over seven thousand. The chart that shows the same statistics a decade later has a peak of one hundred and ten thousand. The wave of sanctions showed no sign of abating, as from January to September 2013, a total of 874,850 sanctions were imposed; over 100,000 per month. Of course, it should be noted that while a claimant is under sanction, he or she does not appear on the official jobless figures.
Like a bad dream that gets worse. . .
I saw the manager as arranged, and I showed her the two diaries, but she seemed even more determined than the adviser had been.
“I wouldn’t have accepted either of them,” she boomed. I jumped straight in here.
“That has nothing to do with it,” I said, “the fact is that the first diary was accepted, and so, based on that precedent, you must accept the evidence of the second diary, which is greater.”
Like a bad dream that gets worse, the manager informed me that she would forward my case to a decision maker, adding that in the meantime, as my benefits would be stopped, I should pick up a hardship payment application form on my way out.
I was floored. I wondered how something so glaringly obvious, so clear cut, could be construed in such a negative way. More worryingly, I wondered how my partner and I would get through the next quarter of a year on hardship payments that amount to £40 a week.
I had one last straw to grasp at; the jobseekers' equivalent of a condemned man sending a letter to the Home Secretary pleading for a reprieve. This was to submit a letter of reconsideration to the decision maker at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). The body text of my original letter ran to over 1400 words. Below I have pasted an edited version, from which I have removed details such as the hardship my partner and I would endure because of this sanction. I apologise for repeating any content within the letter that has already been mentioned above.
Were these sanctions victims 'wilfully rejecting support for no good reason'?
While most people agree that those out of work and in receipt of benefits should show that they are actively seeking work, some of the sanctions that have been imposed have been on the flimsiest of grounds. Here are five examples of how minor misunderstandings brought about the full weight of hardship measures.
- A claimant attended a job interview that overran. He was nine minutes late when he arrived at the jobcentre, and so he was sanctioned for four weeks.
- A claimant was given a two week sanction because he did not enter anything in his job diary to show that he had been looking for work on Christmas Day.
- A York man secured a job with a start date two weeks later. He did not look for work during those two weeks (why would he?) and so he was sanctioned (oh, that’s why).
- A client was ordered to attend a work programme interview by his local jobcentre. The time of the interview clashed with his signing on time. He couldn’t be in two places at once, so he attended the work programme interview as ordered by the jobcentre. He was sanctioned for failing to sign on.
- A claimant had applied for more jobs than required by the terms of his jobseekers’ agreement but he neglected to state that he had checked his local newspaper for jobs. This was also a requirement of his jobseekers’ agreement, and so he was sanctioned.
Employment Minister Esther McVey said that sanctions were only used against those who were "wilfully rejecting support for no good reason".
Putting things into perspective
A spokesperson for the DWP said that "People who are in a job know that if they don't play by the rules or fail to turn up in the morning, there might be consequences, so it's only right that people on benefits should have similar responsibilities."*
This is fair enough, but turning up late for work on one occasion might result in a verbal warning at worst; it would certainly not lead to the immediate confiscation of that employee's entire wages for the month.
As I have mentioned above, I received a two-week sanction for missing an appointment. It could be argued that I should have made a specific point of attending, but it simply slipped my mind. Over the past few weeks, however, I have seen incompetence by people in paid jobs that makes my missed appointment pale into insignificance. Here are three examples
While using my bank’s chat window service, their agent informed me that a direct debit I had queried had been paid. Here is the crucial section of the conversation.
A**** : Yes, its paid Joseph.
A**** : I can see it here on my systems
JOSEPH: My direct debit is paid?
A**** : The amount was £26.24. Right?
A**** : Yes, its showing as paid here.
JOSEPH: You are sure of this?
A**** : Yes, Of course Joseph
A**** : Be assured.
I was assured, until I checked my account again. The direct debit had not been paid, and when I rang my bank to clarify the matter, I was awarded £20.00 compensation, and £2.25 for the cost of the phone call.
Only three days later, I called into the local branch of my bank to deposit cash to cover a shortfall on another direct debit that was due to come out later that day. Despite my doubts, the cashier assured me that I needn’t deposit any cash, as there were sufficient funds to cover the debit. I came home to check, and I discovered that the cashier had been wrong, and I was right. Another phone call saw the bank giving me compensation for a second time, this one for £25.00.
At the start of August, when I was still unemployed, I was given the details of a local fund that helps new businesses that are starting up. I have a book publishing venture I am seeking funding for, and so I rang the contact number I’d been given. My specific question was this:
Is being unemployed a prerequisite to applying for funding?
I was told that it was not, and so I emailed the news to others involved in the project and, more importantly, I took a job. When I received the application form from the fund, I was dismayed to see that the first question was:
How long have you been unemployed?
It turns out that being unemployed is a prerequisite to applying. As I had been given duff information, and I had taken a job based on that information, I had disqualified myself from applying because of the ineptitude of someone whose job is to provide accurate information.
You see, we all make mistakes. The difference is that those responsible for the above gaffes did not have their wages confiscated. Is it right, therefore, that those who can least afford it are having their entire income suspended because they make the type of everyday errors that we all make?
I don’t think it is.
*(source: The Guardian, Wednesday 14 May 2014)
My letter of reconsideration
12th October 2013
RE: Sanction imposed following an incident on 7th October 2013
I request that you to reconsider the sanction that was imposed against my partner and me following an incident on Monday, 7th October 2013. I believe I can show that this sanction was imposed unfairly, as a precedent had been set. I also believe that personal animosity has played a part in this matter, as I have had two meetings with the adviser in question and on both occasions she adopted a hostile manner towards me. On each occasion, she referred me to a manager; once because of my ‘attitude’, and the other because she felt that my job diary held insufficient evidence. It was the latter which initiated the sanction. Here is a summary of what happened on the morning in question.
The adviser studied my diary, and immediately said that the evidence I presented was insufficient. I pointed out that what I had submitted was more than had been in my diary for the previous fortnight, but this cut no ice with her, and for the second time in succession, she refused to allow me sign on. I was dismissed and told to return at 2.30 p.m., to discuss the matter with a manager.
Here are the details of the diaries in question, copies of which are in your possession:
Document A: This covers the period 10/09/2013—23/09/2013, and contains 17 entries
Document B: This covers the period 24/09/2013—07/10/2013, and contains 21 entries
As you can see, Document A contains fewer entries than Document B. It is quite simply ludicrous to sanction me for submitting a diary that showed more activity than a previous one, which had been accepted. It is as clear a case of goalpost moving as you are ever likely to see.
I might add at this point that on the same morning, my partner signed on without issue, despite having only fourteen entries in her diary for the same period. But I digress – let us return to the matter of my own diaries.
When I pointed out the clear discrepancy to the manager, she told me that, in her opinion, neither of my diaries was acceptable. I trust this line of thinking played no part in the decision making process, for it is a completely redundant statement. The simple fact is that as of 9.40 am, on Monday, 7th October, when I attended the jobcentre to sign on, I had every right to believe that the evidence I was about to submit was sufficient to warrant the payment of benefit, based on a precedent that had been set two weeks earlier.
If it came to light that the person who released the payment based on the evidence of Document A should not have done so, then that is none of my concern. The fact is that she did release the payment, and in so doing indicated to me quite clearly that Document A contained an acceptable level of evidence. On this basis, it was reasonable of me to assume that submitting future diaries with a similar level of activity would also be deemed acceptable. It is certainly not right that I should be punished for the shortcomings of jobcentre staff, and I expect a full explanation of the reasoning behind the decision to apply this sanction.
Further reading on UK welfare issues - and other political stuff
Perhaps if your staff adhered less to the Chancellor’s naïve statement that those on benefits ‘are not doing enough’, and should ‘focus more’, then they might see that most people actually detest being on benefits, and would give almost anything to escape them.
For despite the widely held belief by an out of touch government that people claiming benefits are generally layabouts who rise at noon, never open the curtains and spend the whole day watching Jeremy Kyle on their 40 inch plasma televisions, the misery of being on benefits is itself enough to focus the minds of most people into escaping what is an utterly joyless existence in which hardship goes hand-in-hand with stigma.
As for my own situation, I am at my desk most mornings at 8.30 a.m., looking for work on various websites. The complete lack of response to the job applications I submit has instilled in me a belief, that self-employment offers the best opportunity for me to escape this misery-go-round. To this end, I spend hours each day scouring freelance sites, expanding my contacts and looking at ways I might be able to advance my business plan. These activities do not appear in my job diary, but you can take it from me that in my case, looking for work is a full-time occupation, that often goes on into the early hours of the morning.
I expect a positive response to this reconsideration application, along with an apology for the hardship that was caused by imposing a sanction based on a premise that was quite clearly unfair. If I do not receive such a communication, then I shall immediately send a copy of this document to my MP, and I shall look at other options available to me. I will not let this injustice pass, and I will take the matter as far as you wish.
I expect to hear from you soon.
Every cloud . . .
After ten days of utter misery, we finally received a phone call that notified us that the decision regarding our letter of reconsideration had been favourable. There was no apology.
Amidst the misery, however, there was a ray of sunshine. While we were weighed down in the Slough of Despond, some relief came via my partner’s father, who sent us £100 to help ease our situation. Soon after this, we received the news that our letter of reconsideration had been successful, and all benefits would be reinstated. We offered to pay back the money to my partner’s father, which was still virtually intact, but he told us to keep it.
We went out for a meal with this unexpected bonus – and all thanks to the zealots who tried to sanction me.
"Willfully rejecting support for no good reason" Really?
It gets worse - but I'm off the ride
I am happy to report that since my miserable experiences at the hands of the DWP, I have found work, and I am now free of the jobcentre and its current policy of dishing out sanctions like they were lollipops. I am delighted to be off the 'misery-go-round' too, as the DWP's regime has become even tougher, as yet more stringent measures have been brought in. The link below is from the government's own website.