An increasing number of influential bodies are calling for the capricious benefit sanctions regime to be reformed so that people are provided with the human rights protections they are entitled to. Among the specific issues of most concern to these various bodies have been the impact of benefit sanctions on mental health, as well as the impact of sanctions on children.
Late last year, Westminster’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) undertook a short inquiry into benefit sanctions and its report was published on 21 February. PPR submitted written evidence to the Committee’s inquiry which set out in black and white the ways in which vulnerable people are not only not being protected within the benefit system but are being placed at greater risk, both to their physical and mental health.
The PAC report called for a review of the use and impact of benefit sanctions, highlighted the fact that sanctions have increased in severity in recent years and that they can have ‘serious consequences such as debt, rent arrears and homelessness’.
It concluded that ‘the Department (DWP) has poor data and therefore cannot be confident about what approaches work best, and why, and what is not working. It does not know whether vulnerable people are protected as they are meant to be’ (emphasis added).
Our submission provided the Committee with evidence gathered by the Right to Work: Rights to Welfare (R2W) campaign of the sanction regime’s lack of compliance with international human rights obligations, in particular the right to due process and impact assessment and the impact of these failures on benefit claimants. It highlighted the lack of assessment or monitoring of impact of sanctions on children, despite a clear recommendation to do so by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. It also outlined the R2W group’s proposals, ‘The People’s Proposal’ as to how these current failures can be set right. It would require the placing of a ‘stay’ on the implementation of any sanction decision until such time as a full investigation affording due process and proper impact assessment, including any appeals proceedings, are completed.
At its recent meeting in February with senior officials in the Department for Communities the NI Children’s Commissioner raised the Department’s failure to carry out any impact assessment of the effect of benefit sanctions on children. The Department confirmed once again that it does not collect the necessary data or conduct impact assessments, a particularly shocking admission in a context of over 120,000 children living in poverty in Northern Ireland.
Both the Child Poverty Strategy, published in March 2016, and the draft Programme for Government wax lyrical about eradicating child poverty and giving every child the best start in life. The conscious failure by the Department for Communities to even collect data, let alone conduct impact assessments must surely cast a huge question mark over these paper commitments. NICCY has now asked the Department for Communities to clarify if and how they plan to monitor the numbers of children and young people affected by the benefit sanctions regime.
The demands for a human rights compliant benefit sanctions regime, in line with the People’s Proposal has gained widespread support to date and continues to grow.
On the back of a critical report by the National Audit Office in November 2016 confirming that there is no clear evidence welfare sanctions work, five leading UK psychological therapy organisations, including the British Psychological Society, have called for the suspension of the use of sanctions subject to the outcomes of an independent review. In its statement the organisations highlighted the link between benefit sanctions and the mental health and well-being of individuals:
“Not only are we concerned that the sanctions process is undermining mental health and wellbeing – there is no clear evidence of pay-off in terms of increased employment and no commitment from the Government to investigate how the jobcentre systems and requirements may themselves be exacerbating mental health problems”
In response, the Mental Wealth Alliance, while welcoming this call, pressed the member organisations to call for an independent review that includes all aspects of conditionality in a benefits system that deploys psycho-compulsion through mandatory rules. The Alliance points to the psychological pressure of Work Capability ( WCA) and Personal Independence Payments ( PIP) assessments, of job search rules, mandatory work programmes and regular cuts to welfare benefits as part and parcel of the wider benefits system within which the voice and rights of the individual are completely denied.
The People’s Proposal is supported by the following political parties - Sinn Fein, SDLP, UUP, Green Party and people Before Profit as well NIC-ICTU, the representative body for 34 trade unions in Northern Ireland, the NIPSA trade union, and the Children’s Commissioner NICCY. The R2W group has also briefed representatives of the four main churches on the #PeoplesProposal.
Bafta award winning film maker Ken Loach whose powerful film I, Daniel Blake, conveys the harsh reality of the benefit sanctions regime, has also endorsed the R2W campaign and the #PeoplesProposal
To register your support for the #PeoplesProposal simply cut and paste the message below and email it to email@example.com
“Our organisation supports the People’s Proposal and calls on the Permanent Secretary for the Department for Communities to issue guidance to all Decision Makers, requiring them to ensure that both due process and impact assessments are undertaken and fully complied with in the decision making process.”
 Concluding Observations paragraph 70 (c) and (d)
 The five organisations backing the statement are the UK Council for Psychotherapy, the British Psychoanalytic Council, the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies and the British Psychological Society.
 Psycho-compulsion, defined as the imposition of psychological explanations for unemployment, together with mandatory activities intended to modify beliefs, attitude, disposition or personality, has become a more and more central feature of activating the unemployed and hence of people’s experience of unemployment