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Thursday 1st
posted by Morning Star in Features

CHARLOTTE HUGHES welcomes a report from the National Audit Office that exposes the Department for Work and Pensions treatment of claimants as counterproductive and expensive — and the supposed savings are largely bogus

yesteday The National Audit Office (NAO), the spending watchdog, slammed the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) for penalising hundreds of thousands of claimants.

In this damning report, the NAO states that the DWP is spending more than £250 million a year on administration costs but only saving £135 million from withholding benefits.

The massive knock-on effect of benefit sanctions is costing the government at least £35m in hardship payments and is putting extreme pressure on other services that are already greatly underfunded and struggling.

The NAO says the use of sanctions is wildly inconsistent with some areas regularly fining claimants while others only impose a few penalties. It also notes that: “possible wider costs include the direct impact on people who get sanctioned, such as financial hardship or depression,” which in turn, is increasing the pressure on public services and the NHS.

The report goes on to say: “supporting them [claimants] may lead to higher public spending in areas such as local authority funded welfare support. The department does not know these wider costs and benefits.”

It also states that more than 400,000 people had their benefits docked in 2015 but notes that some people are waiting a whole month to have their sanctions overturned on appeal.

In my experience this often takes much longer and results in claimants losing everything.

The NAO rapporteurs also note that the system lacks consistency of approach. Referral rates vary substantially across jobcentres and providers and have risen and fallen over time in ways that cannot be explained by changes in claimant compliance.

“In particular, the Department [DWP] should monitor the impacts of sanctions on those who receive them,” the report says.

Claimants have often been literally sanctioned for the most trivial of reasons. This hasn’t saved the government any money — quite the opposite.

It has, statistically, cost it nearly twice as much to sanction people as has been saved in stopped benefit payments. The suffering and humiliation that claimants endure has been wholly unnecessary. Bizarrely, Theresa May has recently stated that this was value for money — she obviously either doesn’t understand economics, or her government is doing deliberate harm. 

Austerity is a political choice not a necessity, and this news, in the report, conclusively proves that.

Every week for over two years we have experienced the true reality of the government’s sanctioning regime — a life that no-one would like to experience.

Last week we experienced, here outside Ashton Under Lyne Jobcentre, an unprecedented need for the food parcels that we regularly hand out.

It was a cold, wet morning and the weather reflected the mood of the Jobcentre. As soon as I arrived the demand for my advice, food parcels and even a general chat started and, believe me, it’s not easy to juggle everything.

I had a nice surprise though when a comrade from a different area turned up with five food parcels he was able to assemble from collections he’s held — brilliant. They contained hats, gloves, womens sanitary products, loo rolls and food.

Separately we collected our own food parcels from a local organisation so in total we had about 10 but it wasn’t enough.

Sanctioned claimants, homeless claimants who are sofa surfing amongst family members, working people on universal credit and disabled people who have failed their ESA medicals were amongst the people desperate for the food parcels.

I struggled to keep up and it was stressful because this misery shouldn’t be happening as today’s report makes plain and obvious.

We saw a few people of mixed ages and sexes storm out of the building obviously very angry. One man in particular I was worried about and I chased after him to see if I could help. I didn’t want him to hurt himself or anyone else and also wanted him to know that we cared.

He told me that he had worked for over 30 years in the same job, but had been made redundant and now had no choice but to sign on.

The Jobcentre had given him the impossible task of producing a driving licence or a passport to enable him to open a claim. The trouble is he has neither. He did however have lots of identification and that’s why he was angry.

He said he just wanted help, he’d never done this before and he felt lost. His adviser refused to budge although he could easily have work around this.

I advised him and offered him a food parcel. But he refused it, not because he didnt need it but because he was proud. I told him of places where he could get food and that we would be here next week with food if he wanted one. By this time he had calmed down, took the leaflets offered him and thanked me.

I could go on forever here and I just wanted to make things better for everyone yesterday, but I can’t. I really felt like crying, because that man’s story is just the tip of the iceberg.

We need support. It’s winter, coming up to Christmas, the time the DWP always, in my experience, becomes harsher in dishing out sanctions. I aim to be ready for that.

While the government continues to send out the message that austerity is necessary and that it is proving to be value for money, I can say with complete confidence that it is neither. All it does cause is needless suffering and needs to be challenged as a matter of great urgency.

As Gandhi once said: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” and pointed out that: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will,” and I have plenty of that.

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