“Where’s the review?” say Churches and charities

It has been 100 days since the Work and Pensions Select Committee called for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions system, but the Government has not indicated any intention to conduct a review. A group of Churches and charities is calling urgently for the Government to heed the Committee's report and act on its recommendations.

In the same 100 day period last year, 346,256 people who were on Jobseeker's Allowance and 35,554 people on Employment Support Allowance were referred for sanctions. 92,558 of those referrals were the result of bureaucratic error. These resulted in 175,177 sanctions for Jobseekers and 11,129 for those out of work due to ill health. The call for a review is supported by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and by charities Church Action on Poverty, Gingerbread and Mind.

"The implementation of the present sanction regime is controversial with the government claiming it is effective in helping people into work while many others say sanctions are causing real distress to families and are actually acting as a barrier to participation," said Dame Anne Begg, MP for Aberdeen South from 1997 to 2015, who chaired the Select Committee. "If sanctions work as a deterrent, why are so many people still facing multiple sanctions? As there are so many questions about the effects on people who have been sanctioned, it is time the government implemented the recommendation of my Select Committee in the last Parliament to carry out a full, independent review of the whole sanction regime. Many believe that sanctions are being applied to the wrong people for often trivial reasons and are the cause of the increased use of foodbanks. Only an independent review can get to the truth of what is actually happening so that government policy can be based on evidence and not seen as merely punitive."

"The case has been made," said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church. "The sanctions system requires fundamental review and we call upon the new Parliament to respond positively to the recommendations of the Select Committee. Churches and charities are backing this call because we see day by day the harm that benefit sanctions cause in the communities we serve. We recognise the hiatus caused by the General Election, but hope that the new Parliament will recognise the urgency of this matter and announce a full independent inquiry as soon as possible."

In March this year the Churches called for such a review in their report Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, which cited new evidence about the negative impact of the current regime. The report revealed that around 100,000 children were affected by sanctions in 2013/14. The data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also shows that people who receive the sickness and disability benefit Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a long-term mental health problem are being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day.

The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan said: "Since 2012, the rate at which sanctions have been applied to vulnerable people claiming Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance in Wales has increased even faster than in England or Scotland. Many claimants, who are already suffering from mental or physical health problems and living in poverty, are threatened with sanctions because of administrative errors. For the sake of human dignity, fairness and compassion, the system must be changed."

Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, said: "Far too many people with mental health problems are having their benefits cut for not meeting the requirements placed on them, which are often inappropriate in the first place. The use of sanctions is causing financial hardship and is based on the assumption that people claiming out-of-work benefits lack motivation and willingness to find and keep a job, which couldn't be further from the truth for the people Mind represents.

"The vast majority of people who are out of work due to their mental health want to work. But the constant threat of sanctions causes a great deal of distress, making people more unwell and a return to work less likely. We support the Churches' call for the Government to commission an independent review into sanctions policy."

"In working with churches across the North West, I am increasingly hearing stories of individuals whose lives are being blighted by the impact of benefit sanctions," added the Revd Phil Jump, Regional Minister for the North Western Baptist Association. "There is clear evidence of the need for our government to take serious account of the concerns and recommendations of a committee which itself is part of our parliamentary system."

The Churches are asking people to write to their MPs.

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