The number of sick and disabled people affected by the government’s controversial benefit sanctions regime rocketed by 31% in the last year, the Daily Mirror has reported today.
According to the Mirror, figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that 33,357 Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants saw their benefit payments docked in 2014-15.
This, the newspaper says, equates to around 6.8 sanctions for every 100 claimants and is 31% higher than the previous year; when the proportion of sanctions stood at 5.2 per every 100 claimants.
A report by the Work and Pensions Select Committee earlier this year called for a “full independent review” into the benefit sanctions regime.
Former chair of the committee Dame Anne Begg said in March: “Benefit sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income.
“We agree that benefit conditionality is necessary but it is essential that policy is based on clear evidence of what works in terms of encouraging people to take up the support which is available to help them get back into work.
“The policy must then be applied fairly and proportionately. The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities.
“And it should avoid causing severe financial hardship. The system as currently applied does not always achieve this.”
The members of the committee were changed following the general election, with Labour’s Frank Field appointed as the new chairperson.
Benefit sanctions have often been described as a ‘post-code lottery’, with jobseekers in some parts of the country more likely to have their benefits stopped than those in other towns and cities
BBC News has reported today how jobseekers in Dundee were 50% more likely to be sanctioned than those living in Glasgow.
Sick and disabled people who have been assessed as unfit for work, but whom may be capable of returning to employment in the near to medium future with the right support, are placed within the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG) of ESA and required to begin work preparations. This may include attending ‘Work Focused Interviews’ at Jobcentres, writing a CV, participation in the Work Programme and other back-to-work support.
Welfare Weekly revealed last week how a DWP benefit sanctions information leaflet aimed at ESA claimants included ‘fake quotes’ from made up claimants. Photos used alongside the quotes were also fabricated. It has also been established that the “stock photos” have been used in other DWP publications.
DWP officials were forced into removing the leaflets from the government’s website after admitting using fake quotes, claiming they were included for “illustrative purposes” only.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from Welfare Weekly, the DWP admitted: “The photos used are stock photos and along with the names do not belong to real claimants. The stories are for illustrative purposes only.”
Left red-faced and backed into a corner, the DWP attempted to defend the leaflet by claiming the stories of two ESA claimants, who had been supposedly affected by benefit sanctions, were included “to help people understand when sanctions can be applied and how they can avoid them by taking certain actions.”
However, the fact that neither of these claimants were real resulted in calls for the Work and Pensions Secretary, Iain Duncan Smith (IDS), to resign.
Labour MP Debbie Abrahams accused IDS of lying to the public and tens of thousands of furious people have added their names to an online petition calling for IDS to stand down. So far, the Work and Pensions Secretary has refused to resign, but admitted the use of fake quotes was “quite wrong”.
Mr Duncan Smith told Sky News: “What it seems happened, and we are investigating that at the moment, is somebody along the way put up what was essentially meant to be an example of the kind of advice [that is given] and it ended up going out as a quote, which was quite peculiar and quite wrong.
“We’ve immediately taken that down and stopped it. That sort of thing does not really happen. That’s happened this one time.”
IDS suggested this week that back-to-work assessments for ESA should be toughened to get one million more disabled people into work. This is despite of data which shows a fall in the number of people in the ESA WRAG.
Severely ill and disabled people are placed within the ESA Support Group and not required to look for work or take part in work related activity, unless they volunteer participation. However, these people may still face repeated humiliating assessments to determine future work capability.
The employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people has been a cause for great concern. Analysis of figures from the Office for National Statistics by the disability charity Scope, reveal that only 48% of disabled people are in employment compared to 78% of non-disabled people.
However, disability rights campaigners claim the figures paint a misleading picture and say too many employers still discriminate against disabled jobseekers. They urge the government to help change negative stereotypes about disabled people, rather than reinforcing false perceptions and treating the issue as “a problem that needs to be explained away to employers”.