DWP sanctions have now been branded ‘life-threatening’

A coffin and the DWP logo
Steve Topple

The Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) benefit sanctions regime has been slammed as “life threatening” for some claimants. An important new study has said that the DWP should end so-called ‘conditionality’ for some claimants. The study argues that it is “ineffective” and filled with “perverse and punitive incentives that are detrimental to health”.

The DWP: under the microscope

The University of Essex and disabled people’s organisation Inclusion London have released a joint study. It looks at life for claimants in the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Work-Related Activity Group (WRAG). This is where the DWP places people aged 16 to 64 whom it deems can start moving towards work. They are often sick or living with mental health issues. But the DWP thinks they can start doing work-related activity, such as training courses or work experience. As of February, there were around 414,000 people in the ESA WRAG.

The study is called Where your mental health just disappears overnight. It interviewed claimants who were either in the ESA WRAG or had been. Its findings were damning.

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It stated that the DWP works on the assumption that people are in the ESA WRAG because:

  • They are only absent short term from work.
  • That it will be “100% successful in all cases” in getting people into work.

But it said these assumptions were simply “not true”.

“Life threatening”

Overall, the report found that:

  • The ESA WRAG was “significantly detrimental” to people’s mental health.
  • The DWP made claimants do “less meaningful tasks” in the WRAG than they expected. Many said that they wanted to do vocational work-related activity, but the WRAG didn’t meet this expectation.
  • It drove claimants into work-related activity with “perverse and punitive incentives”. These “undermined their self-confidence and required them to understate their previous achievements”.
  • Sanctions had a “life threatening” impact on some claimants. People lived “in a state of constant anxiety”. The DWP was applying conditionality in an “unpredictable way”, making claimants’ anxiety worse.

The report also criticised the thinking behind sanctions. The idea of conditionality comes from Behavioural Economics. In the DWP’s case, it believes that sanctions can change people’s behaviour to get them into work (see Kitty Jones’s work on “nudge theory”). The report said of conditionality and sanctions:

these models of behaviour change are not applicable for Disabled people accessing benefits. The incentives offered by Conditionality and Sanctioning involve threats of removing people’s ability to access basic resources. This induces a state of anticipatory fear that negatively impacts on their mental health and renders them less able to engage in work related activity.

Real-world impacts

The evidence from claimants paints a stark picture of the ESA WRAG. People said that:

  • It did “not adequately match up to their experience of living with illness/ impairment/ distress”.
  • Changes to ESA meant the DWP put in place “perverse” incentives like less money to try and get them into work.
  • Jobcentre staff ‘negatively’ operated the conditionality and sanctions regime.
  • They often felt an “omnipresent” “implicit threat” from conditionality and sanctions.

The report said the DWP should end sanctions for disabled people. It also said the DWP must work with disabled groups to come up with a better system.

A claimant speaks…

The University of Essex published claimants’ own comments on being in the ESA WRAG. But, for example, Charlie described his experience of the WRAG and the DWP sanctioning him:

It became a really stressful time for me… we didn’t have a foodbank that was open regularly so I didn’t have that as an option… So, what I was doing instead, because quite quickly my electricity went out… So, all my food was spoilt that was in the freezer. I managed to last for another 5-6 days of food from stuff that I had in the house. So, after that I started to go, I was on a work programme but was never called in. So, I’d go in anyway and there were oranges and apples in a fruit bowl… I would just go in there and steal… [them] so I would have something to eat. Then they finally made a decision that I was going to be sanctioned…

And there was this image which will probably stay with me for the rest of my life.

Christmas

Charlie then described Christmas:

On Christmas day I was sat alone, at home just waiting for darkness to come so I could go to sleep… I was watching through my window all the happy families enjoying Christmas and that just blew me away… I think I had a breakdown on that day and it was really hard to recover from and I’m still struggling with it… I’ve got an aunt in Scotland, every year she sends me £10 for my birthday and £10 for Christmas. And so on the Saturday after Christmas, the first postal day, I received £20 from her and so then I could buy some electricity and food. I was then promptly sick because I’d gorged myself, because I ate too quickly.

No way out

He then talked about having to go back to the Jobcentre to see the adviser who sanctioned him:

So finally, when new year had ended and I had to go back and sign with that same woman who had sanctioned me. She said that being sanctioned had shown her that I didn’t have a work ethic. Now I’d been working pretty much solidly since I was 16 and it was only out of redundancy that I was out of work… The problem I had with that was the woman who sanctioned me was in the same place and it made me extremely nervous.

I now have a problem going into the Job Centre because I literally start shaking because of the damage that the benefit sanction did to me… So yeah that was part, the sanction was one of the reasons that triggered the mental health and problems I’m having now… it was awful and I ended up trying to commit suicide… to me that was the last straw and I went home and I just emptied the drawer of tablets or whatever and I ended up in A&E for a couple of days after they’d pumped my stomach out.

The DWP says…

The Canary asked the DWP for comment. But it had not responded by the time of publication.

“Harmful to individuals”

Ellen Clifford from Inclusion London told The Canary:

This important research adds to the growing weight of evidence that conditionality and sanctions are not only harmful to individuals causing mental and physical negative impacts, but are also counter-productive to their aim of pushing more disabled people into paid work.

Universal Credit… will extend and entrench conditionality. This is yet another reason why the roll out… must be stopped and a new system designed based on evidence-based approaches and co-produced with disabled people and benefit claimants.

Yet the DWP maintains the WRAG and is also pushing ahead with Universal Credit. The University of Essex report comes after The Canary revealed that over 10,000 ESA WRAG claimants died between March 2014 and February 2017; putting the crude mortality rate in this group over four times higher than the rest of the population. A debate is due in parliament over the DWP next week. So it is surely time for a proper public inquiry into the DWP and its actions. Because it literally has become life threatening to many claimants.

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Featured image via Ann Larie Valentine – Flickr and UK government – Wikimedia 

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Steve Topple