Blog by James Henderson (TCT Development Worker)

Turkey, stuffing, cranberry and sprouts sum up Christmas for many of us but what about the thousands of people who are sanctioned and rely on food banks? They may only dream of this. This has been troubling me, so here are some of my thoughts. 

The reasons for increasing food bank use are complicated but increasing evidence points to the increasing role or welfare system and benefits sanctions are playing. Research in 2015 by Church Action on Poverty - Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions revealed that a staggering 100,000 children were affected by benefit sanctions in one year. 

 

(1) Frank Field MP, the chair of the Commons work and pensions select committee, said the minimum six-week payment period faced by new Universal Credit (UC) claimants led to reliance on emergency food parcels, triggered debt and rent arrears, and caused health problems.

“This is an unbelievably long time for people at the bottom to survive with no money, and I have received evidence to suggest people have been exposed to hunger and homelessness during this 42-day period,” he wrote to the work and pensions secretary, Damian Green back in August. 

“This is an unbelievably long time for people at the bottom to survive with no money, and I have received evidence to suggest people have been exposed to hunger and homelessness during this 42-day period,” 

People on UC and other benefits such as JSA (Job Seekers Allowance), IS (Income Support) and ESA (Employment Support Allowance) are subject to "sanctions". The Department for Work and Pensions explain on their website that benefits sanctions are imposed when there is a "failure to meet one or more conditions of a benefit claim without good reason could lead to payments being stopped for a period of time". (2)

(3) These sanctions have reportedly "caused thousands of claimants to fall into hardship and depression" and yet the National Audit Office (NAO), Whitehall’s official spending watchdog recently has said that they are being handed out without any evidence that they actually work. The NAO concluded there has been a "failure to measure whether the government is saving money, while the application of the sanctions regime varies across the country and from job centre to job centre." 

A DWP report puts forward their reasoning for these sanctions:

"The rationale for sanctions is two fold. First, you can’t get a job unless you are looking for one, so sanctions can be used to get claimants to search for work. Second, unemployment benefits have always been conditional, paid to support people who have no work and therefore no income on the grounds that they seek that work. For conditionality to be enforced some form of penalties are required." (4)

It seems ludicrous to me that something so detrimental can be given out so widely with no proper research as to its impact or as to whether it fulfils the even Government's rationale. 

Benefit payment sanctions can be stopped for between 4 weeks and 156 weeks (3 years) and there are 3 sanction levels; lower, intermediate or higher level. (5)

(6) Researchers from the University of Oxford analysed foodbank data from across 259 local authorities between 2012 and 2015 and found that as the rate of these sanctions increases, within local authorities, the rate of foodbank use also increased. Dr Rachel Loopstra from Oxford University's Department of Sociology, the paper's lead author, said: 'These findings show clear evidence of sanctions being linked to economic hardship and hunger."

I am honoured to be part of the Wolverhampton Poverty Truth Commission, working alongside people with direct experience of the realities of poverty, who are using these experiences to work with Civic and business leaders in the City to lead on how we should respond to poverty in the future. A number of us went to see the film I, Daniel Blake. The film has won many awards, including the prestigious Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. It is certainly one of the most moving and shocking films I have seen in a long time. I came out crushed and in shock again at the harsh reality of how we treat fellow human beings. It's Director, Ken Loach has said his characters’ dismal experiences with the social security system are 'emblematic of a wider austerity-led policy of “conscious cruelty” towards the poor. '(7)

 

(By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51203430)

Sadly, the experiences of his 'characters' were also very much the experience of my friends who are part of the Commission. Their experiences mirror documented cases of claimants "penalised after failing to keep a jobcentre appointment because they were five minutes late, (or) ... taken to hospital in an emergency, or (who) were attending a funeral". (7)

I continue to be moved by what I have seen and the realities they represent for people up and down or country. We must work hard for a society that recognises that everyone has worth, and has skills and talents, without dehumanising and judging people. 

References:

(1)

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/24/universal-credit-delays-forcing-people-to-food-banks-says-mp

 

(2)

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/benefit-sanction-statistics-publication-strategy/benefit-sanction-statistics-publication-strategy

 

(3)

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/nov/30/no-evidence-welfare-sanctions-work-says-national-audit-office

 

(4)

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/199242/sanctions-report.pdf

 

(5)

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/jobseekers-allowance-sanctions-leaflet/jobseekers-allowance-sanctions-how-to-keep-your-benefit-payment

 

(6)

http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-10-27-strong-link-between-increased-benefit-sanctions-and-higher-foodbank-use#

 

(7)

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/27/benefit-sanctions-food-banks-oxford-university-study?CMP=share_btn_link