The Injustice of Benefit Sanctions

The welfare system has become punitive, even more bureaucratic and humiliating. It delivers pain instead of support and disregards people's basic needs.

Author: Alex Leeder

In Worcester, I had been waiting a while – with a due sense of fear and dread - for the full roll-out of Universal Credit (UC). Worcestershire was one of the last counties to go through this, so as a social worker I had been watching it unfold around the nation with a sinking heart.

Its design and implementation has been a little bit like asking a wasp to create some origami; it was ill-thought out, those involved were not qualified to do the job, possessing woefully inadequate skill-sets… it was never going to unfold well and has a nasty sting at the end of it.

The benefit system has been decimated by the Tory Government. There is no safety net anymore, and the latest statistics on homelessness evidence this. As UC is rolled out, these problems will increase.

Benefit sanctions are tipping people into destitution. Sanctions serve no meaningful purpose. They punish those most vulnerable in society, and only add to the challenges people are facing. This is one aspect of the Government's policy of Austerity. The combined impact of cuts to income, housing and services as a result of austerity has targeted poor and disabled people, and this cannot be justified.

This week, I went to see a gentleman living alone in a housing association flat. He had made contact to request a food bank voucher. He lost his job due to suffering from anxiety and depression. His wife had left him. As a result of his anxiety, he had missed two appointments with the job centre. They did not help him, nor did they allow him time to seek help to deal with this. Instead, they sanctioned him, leaving him with £217 to live off for the month. His rent is £417 per month. He is now in rent arrears.

This man is working incredibly hard in looking for work. He has registered with several temping agencies; he has sent his CV to various prospective employers. He has a strong CV – but he has not yet been able to find work. This would not have happened 10-15 years ago, but the system has changed. It has been cut to the bone and the ethos of the welfare state has been dismantled by the Government.

We have a great local homelessness day centre in Worcester, which also offers a 'clothing project'. This can be used now by people who are not homeless, in recognition of the fact that an increasing number of people in 2018 can afford nothing. Not even the basics. This is not because people have become lazy or “stopped trying” over the last 10 years, neither have people suddenly become worse at their own financial management. It is because necessary support - Welfare - has been unceremoniously hacked away by the Government. The Welfare State is supposed to be there to ensure that people have that safety net, and access to the support they need to be able to contribute to their society and feel valued as a citizen during times of hardship. Instead, the system has become punitive, even more bureaucratic and humiliating.

Unless things change, we will see more and more of this. More homelessness, more destitution, more desperation. All of this can be avoided. Some time ago the Tories talked of their being “no magic money tree” before handing £1 billion over to the DUP. They are doing nothing to meaningfully tackle tax evasion. There is money available to provide well-resourced public services and welfare. Not doing so is a political choice, and people need to mobilise against this.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

The Injustice of Benefit Sanctions © Alex Leeder 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.

Story | 03.12.18

mental health, social justice, tax and benefits, England, Story

Alex Leeder


Social worker, teacher and author

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