Monthly Archives: January 2015

Beyond your Front Door: more on benefit sanctions

P1010667Sometimes I wonder if any of us really know what goes on beyond our front doors. This week, two reports have come out about the DWP benefit sanction regime that are so damning, it seems impossible that the system can continue, and yet it does. I feel that I must be completely out of sync with society. All my conversations about benefit sanctions, real and virtual, are full of stories about how sanctions cause misery and pain and are inflicted in an arbitrary and cruel way. But I clearly have no idea what goes on beyond my front door, as there seem to be many who see nothing wrong with the system. On the other hand, so many must have no idea what is actually happening in the lives and families of those who are affected by sanctions.

So, not a full blog today. I just wanted to bring these articles and other comments together in one place.

One report has found that benefit sanctions are disproportionately applied to people with mental health problems. The Methodist Church, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales and MIND found that more than 100 people a day are having their income taken away. Far too often, the reason for the sanction is often a symptom of the health issue. “Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping. The fact that this system punishes people for the symptoms of their illness is a clear and worrying sign that it is fundamentally flawed,” said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church.

The findings of an MPs’ inquiry showed that cutting people’s benefit doesn’t actually help people find work. It certainly cuts the benefit bill and makes the unemployment figures look better. But many people who are sanctioned don’t find work, they simply give up claiming the benefit. This might sound great if you ignore the human misery and are only interested in outcomes that involve saving money. But the review also suggests that the costs simply appear elsewhere, but bigger, such as in additional costs to the prison and courts service, to the NHS and other food support services.

And finally this piece in the Guardian today, which shows up the sanctions regime for what it is: a means to bully and harass people who can’t fight back. And the reason why this continues, why people don’t see or aren’t bothered is summed up nicely thus: “But a public encouraged to think of “the unemployed” and “welfare claimants” as some separate, degenerate Other seems barely to notice what is happening.”

This s**t isn’t happening to other people, it’s happening to us. To our fellow citizens, to people in our cities, in our communities, to our neighbours, our friends, to our country. Come on guys, look beyond your front door. Arm yourselves with the facts. Click on the links above (and the ones I’ll post below), read the reports. And when those desperate parliamentary candidates knock on your door asking for your vote, ask them what they’re going to do about it.

Other reports and comments:

Emergency Use Only

Listen Up!

Feeding Britain

The Safety Net: in urgent need of repair

Other reports worth reading:


Our Fair City

Fair city logoThe conversation has started! It started last week, in fact, on Tuesday 13th January with the launch of the Sheffield Fair City Campaign.

Actually, I guess the conversation really started in January 2013 with the publication of the Sheffield Fairness Commission report. It tells the story of inequality through the 83 bus route. “The bus starts at Millhouses, in Ecclesall ward where female life expectancy is 86.3 years. By the time the bus has travelled down Ecclesall Road and into the city centre, female life expectancy has dropped to 81.6 years, and by the time it makes its way into Burngreave ward just 40 minutes from the start of the journey female life expectancy is only 76.9 years. This means that a baby girl born and who lives her life in one part of the city can expect to live, on average, almost 10 years longer than a similar baby girl born and living her life about four miles away, by virtue of nothing more than the socio-economic circumstances and area she was born in to.” I talked about it in an earlier blog post “It’s not fair”.

Two years on, the commission is still ambitious that Sheffield is becoming and will continue to become a fairer city. But we all have our part to play. It’s not just the strategic decision makers who make this happen. Every one of us must play our part. If this city is going to be fairer, those of us who currently have a lot might in future have to have a little less. Those of us with plenty resources will need to share them with those of us with fewer. We are fellow citizens together in this great city, working together to find solutions in the best interest of us all.

The Sheffield Fair City Campaign has 10 principles:

  • Civic responsibility – all residents to contribute to making the city fairer and for all citizens to have a say in how the city works
  • Those with the most resources should make the biggest contributions
  • The commitment to fairness must be for the long-term
The commitment to fairness must be across the whole city
Preventing inequalities is better than trying to cure them
To be seen to act in a fair way as well as acting fairly
Those in greatest need should take priority
An open continuous campaign for fairness in the city
Fairness must be a matter of balance between different groups, communities and generations in the city
The city’s commitment to fairness must be both demonstrated and monitored in an annual report

This will truly only work if we are all in it together. It hinges on our collective responsibility to each other. If you live or work in Sheffield, you can join the conversation and get involved. If you think you can sign up to the fairness principles, click on the website and make a fairness pledge. If you want to see this campaign spread throughout the city, you can become a fairness champion. I’ve only been in this city a year, and one of the first things people told me about was the East/West divide. Let’s see what part we can all play in overcoming that divide and making Sheffield a fair city.

Why I can’t sanction sanctions

Emergency use onlyWhat happens to people who get their benefits stopped? Have you ever actually sat down and thought about what really happens? Or are the consequences unfortunate but unavoidable, so you don’t think about them? After all, sanctions are a justifiable way of making sure people aren’t defrauding the system, right?

Well, no. Benefit fraud is a different thing altogether and involves court cases, paying the money back and going to prison. Just over a year ago I was giving debt advice to a couple with young children who were sentenced to prison the week before Christmas.

Let’s look at what I’m really talking about. What bothers me is the growing gap in the numbers between people in work and people claiming unemployment benefit – known these days as job seekers allowance (JSA).

Not everyone who doesn’t work claims JSA. Some people are too unwell to work and they (should) receive a different allowance. Other people live in households which have other income and aren’t entitled to JSA. In theory, in an ideal world, this should cover everyone.

Recently, the number of people in work has been rising. We can have a debate about the quality of these jobs, and employment versus self-employment, but that’s for another day. However, government figures show the number of people receiving JSA has been falling faster than the number of people in work has been rising. It’s perfectly clear that they haven’t all started claiming the allowance for those too unwell for work as the furore over changes to this benefit shows. And neither you nor I believe they’ve all moved into households with other income.

No, people are no longer counted as claiming JSA because they have had their allowance stopped. And here is the key phrase I read on a discussion thread, and which continues to buzz round my head – “people are no longer counted”. These people don’t count any more – they’re off the JSA figures – who cares if they’re actually working or not.

So – what actually happens when your income disappears. It usually happens without notice. Most people will tell you they went to collect their money as usual to find it was not there, with no other warning. A sanction can last four weeks or eight weeks, but can be as long as 26 weeks or 104 weeks. Yes, that’s right – 104 weeks – that’s two years, a nice piece of government obfuscation there.

Now, let’s remember this is happening to people, not just numbers. What do you do when suddenly you have not money? You can’t put any more money on your gas or electricity meter – many people without a wage coming in have to use pre-pay meters. Let’s hope the weather is warm. You won’t be able to switch on the oven, but then again, chances are you don’t have any money to buy food. And if it goes on too long, you might not even have a cooker if you’d “bought” it from somewhere like Brighthouse and are paying back in instalments because you could never get that sort of money together up front. Keep the doors and windows locked so the bailiffs can’t get in.

You can’t top up your phone, so you can’t call anyone to see what’s gone wrong or how to put it right, and you don’t have the bus fare to go into town to sort it out. Your rent should still be paid by housing benefit, but this is often incorrectly stopped as well*. Then there’s water rates, TV licence, bedroom tax and council tax, all unpaid and stacking up arrears, penalties and further potential visits from bailiffs.

So what can you do? You could borrow from family and friends, if they’ve got anything they can lend you. But this can only be a temporary fix and will have to be paid back for the sake of family harmony. Likewise, you could go to a foodbank, but again, this is only a short-term solution if your sanction is a long one, and you’ll have to say no to the fresh veg they sometimes offer because you’ve nothing spare to put on the meter for the hob. You could try a payday lender (if you aren’t already struggling with previous loans). You’ll probably get one, but it’s hardly a good solution because even when/if your money is restored, there’s nothing spare to make the repayments anyway. Mind you, it’s an option more and more of us are turning too and personal credit in the UK continues to rocket. You could try a doorstep lender like Provident – at least they accept repayments in smaller amounts, but these seem to go on forever. But better than an illegal lender, a though which has crossed your mind. A Credit Union loan would be a better option, but (as yet) these aren’t available soon enough – you’ll need to be a saver for several weeks first in most cases.

If only there were hardship payments available to tied you over until the end of the sanction period – as least to put money on the meter and food on the table. What? You mean there are such payments? Why did no-one tell me about them?** Meanwhile, we’re all hungry and the last resort might be shoplifting, just so there’s something to feed the kids when they get home from school tonight.


After I wrote this blog but before I posted it, I read this article, which echoes some of my themes above and shows that sanctions don’t help people back into work anyway. Who’d’ve thought?

* see the Emergency Use Only report (pictured), p116

** see the Emergency Use Only report, p42 and p111