Jeff Salway: The benefits smear campaign continues

The DWP has an outstanding track record of completely misrepresenting the impact of the government's welfare reforms. Picture: TSPL
The DWP has an outstanding track record of completely misrepresenting the impact of the government's welfare reforms. Picture: TSPL
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THE revelation that the Department for Work and Pensions used made up quotes from fake benefit claimants to illustrate “positive experiences” of benefits sanctions seems to have come as a shock to many people.

It really should not have. For starters, the DWP has an outstanding track record of completely misrepresenting the impact of the government’s welfare reforms.

And secondly, where are you going to find examples of people benefiting from most or all of their income being taken away from them, frequently without good reason? How many people would last for more than a month if their income suddenly stopped, with bills to pay, mouths to feed and repayments to meet?

Sanctions, in brief, involve benefits being reduced or taken away entirely because certain conditions, such as job applications or interviews, haven’t been met.

The Scotsman recently reported the case of a young mother who was left without money for a month when she was sanctioned for arriving at an appointment 10 minutes late. Her crime was to interrupt her journey to take her four-year-old to the toilet, according to Barnardo’s. Her punishment was to be plunged into debt, unable to pay household bills and reliant on food banks to feed the children.

One food bank told last year of the astonishing case of a man who had a heart attack during a work capability assessment – and was then sanctioned for failing to complete it.

A Renfrewshire man was sanctioned earlier this year when he missed a job centre appointment. Why? His wife had just had a stillborn child and he chose to miss the meeting and instead stay by her side in hospital.

We could fill every page of this paper with examples of sanctions imposed cruelly and punitively. People are being sanctioned for not using the “correct” job websites, for heaven’s sake.

No wonder there’s growing evidence of a very clear correlation between sanctions and the massive rise in the number of people using food banks.

A report published last year by the Trussell Trust, Oxfam, the Church of England and the Child Poverty Action Group found that up to 30 per cent of food bank users had suffered sanctions.

We’d know more about this if the government hadn’t rejected the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s demand for urgent steps to monitor the impact of sanctions on financial hardship.

The government has also been resisting calls to publish information on the number of people who have died while claiming out-of-work benefits, employment and support allowance, incapacity benefit or severe disablement allowance. Some will now be published this week, albeit in a format that will make comparison with previous data all but impossible.

It’s almost certain that the figures won’t include the number of people who have died while under benefit sanctions – including many who have taken their own lives – despite a petition signed by more than 220,000 people calling for that data to be disclosed.

The crackdown on social security has been facilitated by a long-term demonisation of people on benefits. The truth about the impact of sanctions makes for very painful reading indeed, as the DWP has effectively acknowledged.