Edited extracts of written evidence to a recent House of Commons work and pensions select committee on the impact of benefit sanctions.
I have been sanctioned on three occasions. On the first, I cancelled a jobcentre appointment to go to a job interview. It was short notice, but I phoned the jobcentre to inform them and was assured on the phone that it was OK. I was sanctioned two weeks JSA [jobseeker’s allowance]. I appealed and was found to be in the right and the money was paid, which was great, but in the interim I had to go two weeks without a penny to my name. I missed other job interviews because I had no money for transport and went without food, electric and heating for some of that time. It was a cruel punishment, issued arbitrarily, that had a negative impact on my jobseeking and diminished my respect for the benefit system massively. The third occasion I was sanctioned was because I missed an appointment I had not been informed of. I lost four weeks’ money. This sanction came when I was preparing to enter self-employment. I had planned to use the money to purchase tools and safety equipment for work. It actually delayed my return to work by two months and made life very difficult in the interim.
My benefits were sanctioned for three months. That is an awfully long time to live without money. I had failed to apply for one specific (and, I felt, inappropriate) job handed to me by my adviser at the jobcentre. The fact that I had been for a job interview that week, had another lined up and had applied for at least 10 others was ignored. It was decided that I was not doing enough to find work and three months was deemed to be a suitable sentence. Three months for a first time offence. My mental health (which was already vulnerable after months of unemployed stagnation) deteriorated rapidly and challenging the decision was incredibly difficult. With some help, I did manage to apply for hardship payments and submit an appeal against the sanctioning. I am fortunate in that I had some emotional support from my family and partner. Many others do not, and I dread to think how terrifying they must find such a situation, considering how hard it was for me. The hardship payments were not enough to live on, or pay rent and I was thoroughly destitute by the end of my benefit sanction. When my appeal was eventually heard, some seven to eight months later, I succeeded in putting across my case and the judge found in my favour – that the period of the sanction was hugely unjust and out of proportion with my offence, a one-off offence at that. The judge decided a fairer length of time would have been two weeks. This means I was given a punishment lasting about six-and-a-half times longer than was fair.
My brother is now 57 years old. He has not had an easy life. He lost his second child to cot death. He was later divorced. He fought for and was granted sole custody of his infant daughter. He made an outstanding job of bringing her up. My brother remarried and was sadly widowed. His great friend committed suicide. However throughout all these difficulties my brother continued to work and pay his taxes and National Insurance. He also helped to organise a Woodcraft group, the local Gingerbread group, a charitable furniture scheme and the local credit union. One might say a life enhancer and a contributor to the “big society”. Unfortunately he began to find it difficult to cope financially and was declared bankrupt for a minor debt of £2,000 which escalated out of control before any of the family found out what was happening. When he was threatened with losing his home, he finally cracked and in September 2012 he was signed off sick with depression. His employer was supportive at first but finally sacked him in January 2013. He continues to be certified as clinically depressed by his GP and a local psychiatrist. He finds it impossible to cope with normal life including opening mail or making phone calls. In the summer of 2013, as his house was still under threat, and he had no financial support, my 90 year old mother cashed in her life saving to lift the bankruptcy order. In August 2013, my brother finally had an appointment to be assessed for work capability. Unfortunately he did not have any money to pay the four bus fares to a neighbouring town and back. So he did not keep the appointment, just phoned and explained his situation. His benefits were stopped immediately and he has received nothing at all since (16 months), even though his GP and the local psychiatrist still assess him as too ill to work. He no longer has internet access at home, as he cannot pay the bill, nor money for bus fares to the local library, thus he has found it impossible to complete online claim forms especially as he also has diagnosed dyslexia. He has had some help from the local citizens advice bureau and his daughter to try to negotiate the red tape and get his benefits reinstated but with no success to date. He has survived only by my 90-year-old mother sharing her pension with him and by my husband and I sending food parcels over the internet paid for by our pensions. There have also been contributions from his daughter and other family members. My brother is not and never has been a benefit scrounger, just someone who is too mentally ill to cope at present, and who needs a helping hand to get back on his feet and back into work.
My brother David was found dead in his flat on 20th July 2013, he died alone, penniless and starving he was just 59. The coroner’s report stated there was no food in his stomach. His money had been stopped a month before he died for failing to attend an appointment and by 8 July he had just £3.44 in his bank (you need at least £5 to draw money out). His electric key had run out and could not chill his insulin and there was no food in the flat. There used to be a time if you missed your jobcentre meeting and had a long-term illness like diabetes or were vulnerable there would be concern and outreach by jobcentre staff. Now they cut off your benefits. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) were aware of David’s diabetes, yet as a result of their sanctions he could not chill his insulin or eat and as a result died of “fatal diabetic ketoacidosis”. Even if he had been aware of claiming hardship his severe condition meant he would not have lived long enough to receive the money. As the Oakley Report states, the most vulnerable claimants struggle to understand which means that the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it. Sanctions must be fair, timely and proportionate and not create excessive hardship. David was a vulnerable adult who struggled with correspondence (the jobseekers allowance sanction letters were found unopened in his flat). He should have been helped by the agencies that were there for the wellbeing of people like him, but they totally failed him.
Bernice June Gaze
My 20-year-old son Sean was sanctioned after signing on only two weeks and having just left college, the reasons being he was not “doing enough” and was “long-term unemployed!” My older son’s situation was very upsetting for me as things are so hard for young people when they leave college these days. I helped him do a CV, put it on websites. Showed him everything you need to do to appease the jobcentre and helped him look and apply for work. I knew he was doing everything he could. One adviser he saw did not understand why he had been sanctioned and commented he would not have done so as he had applied for plenty of jobs. They then expected him to sign on every day even though it is an hour’s bus ride to Norwich and an hour back at a cost of £5.80. Luckily his friend helped him get some call centre work. My partner, Damian, wanted to attend a college course in computer maintenance (he is brilliant with computers) to help get a good job, and was given the go ahead by his personal advisor at the jobcentre. After attending the course he was sanctioned (money stopped completely with no information of how long for) for being a student even though his personal advisor at Norwich Jobcentre had said he could do the course and still sign on! My son and partner were both refused hardship payments. We had no money for six weeks, we had to borrow money from family to get electric and food. I used the food bank. Our family are as intelligent, talented and ambitious as anyone else and just want to get back on our feet. We have been left to rot by the DWP and treated worse than dirt. Six weeks with no income and a four-year-old which I thought was illegal.
This article first appeared The Guardian, 28 January 2015.