The DWP sneaked out a damning admission just before parliament closed for the summer

The DWP logo in a fireball
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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) released some damning information about benefit sanctions; conveniently just as parliament was closing for its summer holidays.

The DWP: sanctions and mental health

On Tuesday 24 July, minister of state at the DWP Alok Sharma responded to two questions from SNP MP Dr Philippa Whitford. She asked the same question twice:

whether [the] Department has made an assessment of the effect of benefit sanctions on the mental health of claimants.

But one question was specifically about people already living with mental health conditions.

To both questions, Sharma said:

No assessment has been made on the impact of benefit sanctions on the mental health of claimants.

This is a damning admission. Not least because numerous independent studies have linked the sanctions regime to increases in mental distress among claimants.

Read on...

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The actual evidence

For example, just this month, a study by the University of Glasgow found [pdf, p15] that sanctions were associated with an increase in the prescriptions of some types of antidepressants. It said [pdf, p15] this was “indicative of adverse impacts on mental health”.

But as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation noted [pdf, p8] back in 2014:

sanctions and conditionality have also been associated with negative physical and mental health outcomes, increased stress and reduced emotional wellbeing…

More evidence…

On 29 November 2016, five leading professional psychiatric bodies issued a joint statement on sanctions. It said:

The sanctions process may be detrimental to people’s mental health and wellbeing… The links between the sanctions regime and the mental health and wellbeing of individuals should be subject to an independent review…

Not only are we concerned that the sanctions process is undermining mental health and wellbeing – there is… no commitment from the Government to investigate how the jobcentre systems and requirements may themselves be exacerbating mental health problems.

In February 2017, parliament’s Public Accounts Committee noted [pdf, p13] that sanctions “can have negative impacts on mental health, including depression and anxiety”. The homelessness charity Crisis gave it evidence [pdf, p9] showing that 75% of people it surveyed said sanctions had a “detrimental impact on their mental health”. The Citizens Advice Bureau told [pdf, p13] the committee the same thing.

The committee also said [pdf, p5]:

There is an unacceptable amount of unexplained variation in the Department’s use of sanctions, so claimants are being treated differently depending on where they live…

It does not know whether vulnerable people are protected as they are meant to be. Nor can it estimate the wider effects of sanctions on people…

And more evidence…

In May 2018, the Economic and Social Research Council funded a five-year study on sanctions by six universities. Called the Welfare Conditionality Project, it found that, for disabled and homeless people, lone parents, job seekers and those on Universal Credit, sanctions invariably did “very little”, were “largely ineffective” or had mixed outcomes.

In evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s inquiry into benefit sanctions, the Welfare Conditionality Project said its research:

highlighted benefit sanctions, and their possible future application, as regularly triggering high levels of stress, anxiety and depression and/or exacerbating existing physical and mental illnesses.

The list goes on and on. The DWP even admitted that one in five claimants whose deaths it was forced to review had at some point been sanctioned.

But one medical professional perhaps summed the situation up best.

A professional speaks

Clinical psychologist Dr Jay Watts told The Canary:

It is mind-blowing to see the DWP admit that they have still not assessed the impact of the imposition of sanctions on claimants. Let us put this in context. Claimants and activist groups have been telling the government that sanctions are causing claimants to self-harm, collapse further into mental illness and attempt suicide for many years. The extent of the crisis is such that even mainstream professional bodies and organisations such as the Samaritans and CAB have alerted government to the issue. Plus there is evidence of a huge rise in suicide rates as a result of benefits cuts and the insecurity of the sanctions regime. Sanctions not only punish individual claimants financially and psychologically but are a constant hovering menace effecting the embodied safety of all claimants.

Professionals, in solidarity with claimants, have been telling the government of the danger of this regime for many years now. What more exactly would it take to get the government to listen?

What more indeed? Because the DWP and the government are clearly not listening at all.

The DWP: beyond reform

Sharma, in response to Whitford’s question, also said:

We engage at a personal and individual level with all of our claimants and are committed to tailoring support for specific individual needs, including agreeing realistic and structured steps to encourage claimants into the labour market. These conditionality requirements are regularly reviewed to ensure that they remain appropriate for the claimant.

When considering whether a sanction is appropriate, a Decision Maker will take all the claimant’s individual circumstances, including any health conditions or disabilities and any evidence of good reason, into account before deciding whether a sanction is warranted.

In 2014, David Clapson, who lived with diabetes, died from a lack of insulin. He was found with £3.44 to his name and no food in his stomach. The DWP had sanctioned him 18 days earlier.

The DWP doesn’t listen. It doesn’t care. And it is beyond reform. But this is exactly why campaigners and those affected need to keep up the pressure against this most draconian of government departments.

Get Involved!

– Support Disabled People Against Cuts and the Mental Health Resistance Network.

Featured image via geralt – pixabay and UK government – Wikimedia

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