‘He lived on field mushrooms and borrowed eggs’: how the coalition is dismantling the welfare state

The coalition is moving toward a welfare system that is surreal in its cruelty, writes Annie Powell.

The coalition is moving toward a welfare system that is surreal in its cruelty, writes Annie Powell

Earlier this year, Nick Clegg accused Vincent Nichols, the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, of exaggerating when he said that the safety net for the poorest in society had been “torn apart”.

“I think to say that the safety net has been removed altogether is an exaggeration, is not right,” said Clegg.

But he is right, Nick. In the last few years the coalition has slashed so violently at the net which is meant to protect against illness and unemployment that it is no longer fit for purpose. If you fall, there’s a real risk that you’ll go crashing through to near destitution, as the rise in food banks demonstrates all too well.

For the unemployed, the arbitrary and unfair use of so-called sanctions is a large part of the story. In the year to 30 September 2013, 874,850 sanctions were issued to job seekers, the most since JSA was introduced in 1996. In October 2012, the minimum sanction was increased fourfold, from one to four weeks’ benefit. For many, that is four weeks with no income for something as minor as being late for a signing on appointment.

Indeed, in many cases the person sanctioned has broken no DWP rule, not even a minor one. There are myriad examples of how unfair these sanctions can be, a selection of which are set out below.

Importantly, the statistics support the anecdotal evidence. As Dr David Webster, senior research fellow at Glasgow University, sets out here, the most recent data to September 2013 shows that tribunals are upholding almost 90 per cent of appeals by sanctioned job seekers against the DWP, compared to less than 20 per cent under the last government. “Before the coalition the number of successful Tribunal appeals in any 12-month period was well under 2,000,” writes Webster. “It has now risen to over 14,000.”

Only about one in fifty sanctioned job seekers ends up contesting their sanction in court. The DWP’s take on this is that it shows that the “vast majority” of decisions are correct and that the system is therefore working well. Even if this were accurate, 14,000 people a year wrongly issued with such draconian punishments is a strange sort of success.

But the real number is much higher than 14,000 because, unsurprisingly, ending up in court is the last resort. Most claimants who appeal will first have done so internally. This process is hardly perfect as the decision maker is still the DWP, but thousands of wrong decisions are still identified at this stage. Using this data Policy Exchange found that around 68,000 people on JSA a year have their benefits taken away “by mistake”.

In addition, to appeal you have to know that you have the right to appeal. Many are not informed of this right, let alone how to exercise it.

You also have to have the mental, physical and financial resources to appeal. Appealing means doing battle with the DWP’s hellish administration system. It will also involve the cost of making phone calls, stamps, stationery perhaps, and maybe travel expenses to get to the nearest CAB. These are not small sums when you have been stripped of your benefits. Many will surely wonder whether it is worth the money and effort appealing when the whole system is so unfairly stacked against them.

The coalition seems to have dispensed with even the traditional dichotomy of deserving versus undeserving poor: anyone who needs state help is now penalised, including – or especially – the sick. The horrors of ATOS, the removal of the Independent Living Fund for the most disabled people, the failure to pay out personal independent payments to which disabled people are entitled: these have all had catastrophic and sometimes fatal consequences.

On top of that, those too ill to work also have the sanctions system to contend with, as those in the ‘work-related activity group’ are still expected to turn up to work programme appointments. In the year to 30 September 2013 there were 22,840 sanctions imposed on people deemed even by ATOS as too ill to work.

Many stories are surfacing of sick and disabled people who were too unwell to attend a work programme appointment but were still slapped with a sanction. Being too sick to attend an appointment is not against the rules, but you do need to inform the company running the work programme that you are unwell. And those messages have a nasty habit of going missing.

In fact, the administration for both JSA and employment support allowance is strangely erratic. Those who are woefully incompetent at processing messages about illness or a job interview are then remarkably efficient at processing sanctions for non-attendance. It’s almost as if they are under pressure to do so.

And just to make sure that people are suffering as much as possible, the government has scrapped crisis loans and community care grants.

The examples below provide a brief glimpse into this surreally cruel system, and demonstrate why so many of those who do manage to appeal their sanctions are successful.

Extracts from the Food Bank Debate, House of Commons 18 December 2013:

 “Hywel Williams MP (Plaid Cymru): A man came to see me on Monday who had been sanctioned and had no money. He had been called for an interview, but was not able to go because he had to take his seriously ill wife to hospital for cancer treatment. He could not be 30 miles away at the same time.

Ian Lavery MP (Lab): “A gentleman in my constituency faced the same circumstances. He was sanctioned when he was in hospital for a heart condition. He lived for a further three days on field mushrooms and borrowed eggs.”

Sean Halkyard, a 24-year-old job seeker, had his JSA stopped for 13 weeks because he applied for too many jobs in one week:

“I have to apply for three jobs in a week, and I have to be looking daily online for jobs, and I have been doing that. But you have to apply for jobs when they come up, and because I applied for the last three jobs on Sunday and Monday, they didn’t count as being in the second week, which the job centre runs from Tuesday to Tuesday, and I’ve been sanctioned.” – Pontefract and Castleford Express, 12 September 2013

The following are from the report Punishing Poverty by Manchester Citizens Advice Bureau:

“I was supposed to apply for 7 jobs a week, I applied for 10 one week and 5 the next week, so they sanctioned me for a week” / “Had 2 job interviews. Informed job centre I would be a little late. Was 15 minutes late. They sanctioned me anyway.” / “I was ill with enteritis and couldn’t attend although did call and rearrange appointment. They told me they had no record and sanctioned me for three months” / “Job Centre did not record I had informed them I was in hospital when I was due to attend appointment.” / “The official reason was not attending an appointment. The jobcentre was actually closed (new year bank holiday) on the day in question”

Extracts from the second reading of the Jobseekers (Back to Work Scheme) Bill, Hansard 19 March 2013:

“Russell Brown MP, (Lab): A number of us heard yesterday about someone who was asked to report to the jobcentre and sign on as unemployed at 9.30 on a Tuesday morning. At the same time, they were asked to turn up at a new training organisation at 9.30. They went to the jobcentre and said, “Look, I can’t come at 9:30 on Tuesday morning. I’m reporting to a new trainer,” but was told, “No, you need to come here, otherwise you’ll face sanctions. You’ll need to get a letter from your new trainer.” When they went to the trainer and said, “You’ll need to provide me with a letter that allows me to avoid signing on,” they were told, “We don’t provide letters.”

Debbie Abrahams MP (Lab): “…one of my constituents was a beneficiary of employment and support allowance after they had retired on grounds of ill health as a result of a heart problem. He was required to attend a work capability assessment with Atos. During the assessment, he was told that he was having a heart attack and the nurse said that she had to stop the assessment. He got a letter a couple of weeks later saying that he had withdrawn from the assessment and, as such, was being sanctioned.”

Report in the Daily Mail of a woman who was sanctioned for missing a jobcentreplus appointment – because she was at an interview:

“Ceri, from Port Talbot, South Wales, said: ‘Going to a job interview is not good enough reason to miss a signing-on appointment.’ The clash occurred when the teaching interview fell on June 5 – at exactly the time she was meant to see the Job Centre adviser. But having agreed that she could come in the following day, she was told she had breach the rules and would forfeit her benefits.”

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