In our fourth activist guide, we tackle the issue of benefit sanctions. Under this cruel system, people can have their entitlement withheld for as long as three years. The system has caused misery and hardship for thousands of claimants and their families. But how do they work? Why is it important we fight for their abolition? And how can we fight back?
What's a sanction?
A benefit sanction is a penalty imposed on you if you fail to meet "conditions" set by the Department of Work & Pensions (DWP), the UK government department responsible for welfare and pension policy, when looking for work. This penalty means for your first sanction you lose what you're entitled to for up to 13 weeks in some cases. If you're sanctioned again, you could lose money for longer, and if sanctioned a third time, you could lose money up to three years.
Nearly one in four people claiming benefits received at least one sanction between 2010 and 2015. You're entitled to ask for a mandatory reconsideration if you're sanctioned, to get your money back and protect you from future sanctions. As shown in our case studies below, people aren't always aware of this vital piece of information or the fact that there's an appeal process.
For what reason could you be sanctioned?
The DWP have a rules-based system where you have to jump through various hoops to receive your entitlement. When applying for Universal Credit (or any other benefit depending on your situation or the area where you live), you may be required to attend an interview at your local job centre. If you don't attend "without good reason" then you may be sanctioned. The sanction continues until you attend and for a fixed period of a week. (Sanctions don't affect your housing benefit entitlement, but if you're struggling to get evidence about your income then you should let the Housing Benefit Office know).
If you fail to show "sufficient progress" in "work-focused interviews or activity", which might include anything that takes you a step closer to work such as courses, job applications, going to interviews etc., then you may also be sanctioned. This process is most famously depicted in Ken Loach's film I, Daniel Blake.
Why were sanctions introduced?
According to the government, sanctions were introduced to help tackle a "something for nothing culture". This ironically sounds more like a a positive than a negative, but their reasons are ideological and part of their disgraceful austerity programme, which has utterly failed to tackle the financial crisis caused by global elites. The Conservative Party believe human beings are responsible for their own poverty and tend to ignore obvious systemic pressures and the stack of evidence that points to the contrary.
The government also claim they want to tackle benefit fraud, which reportedly costs them £2 billion a year. How sanctions deals with this problem, of course, hasn't been explained. It's also worth noting that tax evasion and tax avoidance costs the UK government close to £7 billion, significantly higher than the figure for benefit fraud. And, given the various loopholes and technicalities in place on what constitutes tax evasion, this is arguably a pretty conservative figure.
What's so damaging about sanctions?
Surveys show that being sanctioned worsens a person's mental health. The data show nine out of ten people who have been sanctioned say it has a negative impact on their mental health, while three in five people argued that being sanctioned actually made them less likely to get a job. This is only compounded by the fact the benefit cap has already been reduced by £6,000 in November 2016, leaving claimants even more anxious and concerned about getting by.
The National Audit Office, which is the government's official spending watchdog, says there's no evidence sanctions work, meaning thousands of people are being driven into hardship and depression for the sake of a failed system. The sanctions approach is morally repugnant regardless of its statistical flaws, but it's telling that the impact the system has on wider public spending hasn't been calculated, despite costing approximately £50 million a year to administer.
How can you avoid a sanction?
Note: all the following information is sourced from activists, anti-poverty groups, foodbanks and government websites. As such, this guide is not professional advice - genuine resources are listed below - but here are some practical steps first of all:
- When seeking a job, keep proof of every single interaction you have with an employer or agency. Keep a diary/any relevant leters and emails/reference numbers.
- Assure you have supporting evidence for why you left a previous role as the DWP may sanction you for "misconduct"
- Attend all meetings as required and politely ask as many questions as you need.
- Double check you're claiming the correct benefit and have your entitlement checked by a welfare rights adviser.
- Tell the DWP any problems you have, especially as they don't necessarily ask. E.g. childcare commitments, lack of internet access etc.
- From the get go, you may already have what they see as good reasons for not complying with their various criteria: for example if you have any learning difficulties, you may not have understood you were required to attend an interview; you may have medical appointments, religious practices, other interviews, sudden accidents/illness relapses, family/friend funerals or issues due to your disability.
- Also: being homeless, experiencing domestic violence, suffering mental health issues or having been a victim of bullying is all relevant information that you can provide.
The DWP should take into account all the above information, particularly if you have stuck to their "claimant commitment".
What you can do if you're sanctioned?
It's your legal right to challenge any sanction. If your mandatory reconsideration fails then you can lodge an appeal within a month. A successful challenge lifts the sanction and reduces the length of time they can apply one in future. Advisers are obliged to comply with your request. The success rate of appealing against sanction decisions is high and highly advisable.
Regardless, the appeal stage can often take a long time and leave you without money. You can claim for a hardship payment if you've been sanctioned if you can "prove" that you or your family will suffer hardship. You can claim this by post, over the phone or in person. Be detailed as you can with all your expenditure and any travel costs/dietary costs. Disgracefully, on Jobseekers Allowance, you have to wait at least 14 days before claiming, but on other benefits you can do it immediately.
If your hardship payment is refused, you can apply to the Scottish Welfare Fund for a crisis grant. Your local council will have information on this. It's worth pointing out that while all these options are essential and important, they only help at an individual level. For support and activism, see below.
What resources are in place?
On an immediate and practical level, if you're stressed about being sanctioned then you can also seek advice/support from the Citizens Advice Bureau and local foodbanks. They will provide you with additional essential information on top of what's above.
Importantly, anti-poverty groups such as WestGAP and the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network provide a collective response to sanctions. They aim to provide the tools, skills, knowledge and support needed to firstly understand the system but also effectively fight back.
The tenants union Living Rent and Unite Community are allies in this fight. By building working class union structures outside the workplace we can win collective victories and experience mass empowerment, the greatest weapon in our armoury. These groups inevitably face issues with funding and active participation and each deserve your time and financial support.
I want to fight for sanctions to be abolished. How should I get involved?
Groups like People's Assembly Scotland (above), a cross-party movement against austerity, can put you in touch with people if you're looking to campaign on the issue. You can of course also write to your local MPs and MSPs and involve yourself in ongoing protests, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. Political pressure on the government needs to be intense and highly coordinated.
Fighting the government isn't enough on this - benefits claimants are stereotyped as "scroungers" and criminals by "reality" TV programmes and the toxic right wing press. To begin to fight back against sanctions, we must be sharp and clear on the rhetoric around benefits and what we're arguing: benefits are not handouts, and even the term 'benefits' itself is problematic - in reality, they are a lifeline for human beings. Furthermore, they're the rightful product of years of wealth created by working class people.
This wealth has been stripped from us through the profits of industry and tax avoidance measures adopted by the largest companies in our society. The funnelling of wealth and profit by a select few into offshore accounts and tax havens damages us all - it prevents the regeneration and improvement of our wider welfare system and the infrastructure of our entire modern society.
Ownership and social control is the only way to ensure we safeguard our standards of living. The system, as has been shown above, is designed to isolate and alienate us from each other, forcing us to become insular and accept the blame for society's failing as a disproportionate failure of individual responsibility.
To fight back, we must collectively educate and organise ourselves.