Churches welcome call for benefit sanctions review


A coalition of major UK Churches, with a combined membership ofmore than 800,000 people, has welcomed the call for a fullindependent review of the benefit sanctions system. Therecommendation comes in a report from the Work and Pensions SelectCommittee that has been released today.


Earlier this month the Churches called for such a review intheir report  Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions which cited new evidenceabout the negative impact of the current regime. They revealedthat, in 2013/14, nearly seven million weeks of sanctions werehanded out to people, with around 100,000 children affected. Thedata, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also showsthat people who receive the sickness and disability benefitEmployment and Support Allowance (ESA) because of a long-termmental health problem are being sanctioned at a rate of more than100 per day. The most common reason for being sanctioned is beinglate or not turning up for an appointment.


"The Select Committee Report describes a system that is brokenand needs urgent review," said Paul Morrison Public Issues PolicyAdviser for the Methodist Church. "Churches are often at theforefront of helping people who have been sanctioned and who are indesperate need of food, support and advice. It is unacceptable thatvulnerable people can be left with no means of support aspunishment for often very minor mistakes.


"The people we have met have spoken of the shame, demoralisationand loss of self-worth caused by this system. As Christians webelieve that everyone is loved, valued and made in the image ofGod, and we have a responsibility to challenge any structure orsystem that undermines that dignity. We hope that whoever forms thenext government will treat this issue with the urgency andseriousness it deserves."


"So far, more than 1,400 people have  written to their MPs about sanctions as a result of thecampaign," added Niall Cooper, Director of Church Action onPoverty, "It's great that people in churches understand howimportant this issue is. We know that sanctions have adisproportionate impact on those who are most vulnerable: youngpeople, care leavers, homeless people, single parents, the mentallyill and those with long-term illness. The new government must actto ensure that the benefits system provides a safety net foreveryone, rather than making people destitute."


Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions was published by the BaptistUnion of Great Britain, Church Action on Poverty, the Church inWales, the Church of Scotland, the Methodist Church and the UnitedReformed Church and features the stories of people like Sarah* whohave had their benefits sanctioned:


Sarah worked as a charity project coordinator until she waslaid off a due to funding cuts. She was asked to apply for eightjobs a week, but always applied for more as she was keen to getback to work. One week she was unable to fill out her job search onthe computer because there were workmen fixing her roof and she hadto stay in the house. Instead she filled out her search in abooklet. She contacted the jobcentre to explain, and ask if theyneeded any proof to support the booklet as she had emails fromprospective employers and had even attended interviews. They saidthey didn't need anything from her.


When Sarah went to collect her money she was told she hadbeen sanctioned. However, she did not receive the letter tellingher she had been sanctioned so was unable to apply fordiscretionary funds to help support her and her family. Sarahsuccessfully appealed the decision, though she says that JobcentrePlus staff repeatedly tried to discourage her from doingso.


"Usually I'm quite a confident person, but they crush you. Ifound the experience at the Jobcentre Plus so awful I'd ratherstarve than go back there again. They should properly train thepeople in the job centre to treat us like people …That wholeattitude that people are scroungers is terrible, there's just norespect."


The Department for Work and Pensions has failed to respond to afurther FOI request regarding whether sanctions make it easier forthe DWP to achieve its targets. This is despite the fact that theInformation Commissioner's Office ordered the DWP to respond by 15March.