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Supporting Families & Communities in Cwmtawe

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Sanctions in the welfare system

A benefit award letter begins with a form of words something like:

“This is the amount the law says you need to live on”.

Ministers like to talk about ‘this country’s generous welfare provision’, but any-one who takes the trouble to check the figures knows that basic benefit rates are actually desperately low. For both JSA and ESA, the weekly rate for a single person under 25 is £57.35 a week, and for one over 25 £72.40. Full details of all pensions and allowances are here:https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/275291/Benefit_and_Pension_rates_2014-15.pdf

At these levels of income, any further reduction very quickly makes a difficult situation impossible – ie for the recipient to keep body and soul together in even the most limited way, without going into debt or being at additional risk of eviction or loss of services.

Yet ‘sanctions’ are now a routine part of the week by week administration of a claimant’s position. That is to say, a desk officer in eg the Job Centre has the on-the-spot power to reduce payments, or even halt them entirely, for a specific period.

CATCH’s experience is that those sanctioned do not always have a clear idea of what they have been sanctioned for.

It appears that there may be no obligation upon the office or the officer to issue, so to speak, a fixed penalty notice, across the desk at the point of sanction, to declare the specifics of the sanction being imposed.

There are persistent rumours and speculations – and we are talking nationally here, not just locally – that local officers and their desk officers, actually have ‘targets’ to meet – they are tasked to sanction ‘so many’ clients (‘customers’, as they now like to call them !) within a specific period. This is something we have no proof of, but if true, it would certainly make sense of some of the circumstances we hear about.

CATCH asks three questions :

1. Is there not a issue of straightforward human rights here ? Whatever is done, and for whatever reason, it should be properly administered. It should not be, in effect, casual and informal.

2. If the sanction is meant to be a stick within a proverbial ‘stick and carrot’ regime, how can the sanction be effective in changing behaviour, if the claimant is not crystal clear what the penalty is for, and what they must do to avoid further penalty ? (And if this is the stick, where is the carrot?)

The alternative implication is that behaviour-change is not the main or only intent – that the sanction is partly or purely punitive, its intent to confuse and de-stabilise.

3. What is the official ‘scenario’ about how the sanctioned claimant is actually supposed to survive on an income that is by definition now LESS THAN “the amount the law says you need to live on” ?

How does increasing debt, reducing ability to pay fares or keep a phone working, threatening hygiene, general presentability, or even malnutrition and homelessness, improve the claimant’s chances of getting back into mainstream working life ?

CATCH wrote to the Department of Work and Pensions on March 4th 2014, and again on March 22nd, seeking clarification of some of these issues. We have yet to receive even an acknowledgement.