"Anecdotally we are seeing increasing numbers of patients coming through over the last 2-3 years with mental health problems exacerbated by changes to the benefit system..." Dr Tom Tasker, Salford Clinical Commissioning Group.
A new report by the Task Force, made up of representatives from Salford groups that work on the front line of poverty in the city, doesn't mess about..."The impact on individuals and families who do have their benefits sanctioned can be devastating" it states as it lists nine consequences of the state's tough new welfare regime, based on statistical and anecdotal evidence in the city...
* A build up of unnecessary debt as claimants cannot pay bills or then borrow at a high cost in order to meet their essential needs
* Exacerbation of existing debt issues where people already have existing debt
* Rent arrears where housing benefit is affected, placing accommodation at risk
* Additional barriers to employment as a result of the distress and financial hardship caused by a sudden loss of income
* Stress affecting mental and physical wellbeing
* Damage to mental health which could lead to self harm and suicide
* Tension within family relationships
* A likelihood that claimants may commit crime including shoplifting
*People `bullied off the books' – the disappeared who stop claiming social security benefits
This latest Task Force report is an update on a previous investigation two years ago which concluded that "strict benefit conditionality, the threat of and use of, benefit sanctions, do not encourage someone to move from benefits into work as the government states but in fact cause damage to the wellbeing of vulnerable claimants and can lead to hunger, debt and destitution"...
Figures show that, while numbers of `adverse' sanctions between April 2013 and March 2014 declined, the rate of sanctioning activity did not; in fact it increased at the Worsley and Eccles Jobcentre Plus offices. The report adds that the number of sanctions have fallen because the numbers of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants has fallen in the city. And that other factors apart from people finding work, are responsible...
Dr Webster, from the University of Oxford, has shown that increasing numbers of people are moving off JSA onto Universal Credit, for which there are no sanction figures, as the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) refuses to publish them. Webster also stated that that `significant numbers' of young people are `disappearing' from the register but not moving into employment or training... `bullied off the books'. Connexions has shown this to be the case in Salford from its own case studies.
The report highlights the amount of people from vulnerable groups in the city who are being `devastated' by sanctions – the under 25 year olds (particularly care leavers); lone parents; people with mental health problems and those with language and literacy barriers. In other words, people who are least able to comply with the tough `conditions' of filling in work search diaries, attending interviews and applying for jobs online...
Salford Supported Tenancies Team states that it has offenders who are prohibited from using the internet, yet are expected to fill in online forms.
Salford Unemployed Community Resource Centre (SURC) gives the example of someone who is deaf, has learning disabilities and has been sanctioned five times for being unable to complete a work search diary and cope with appointments. SURC has challenged more than thirty benefit sanctions decisions since February 2015, with a 100% success rate...
"...The fact that many vulnerable claimants are still receiving benefit sanctions which are often inappropriate and potentially unlawful remains unacceptable" states the report.
The report argues that "Conditionality should be tailored to take into account an individual's circumstances where they have complex needs". There's now mounting evidence that sanctions and the threat of sanctions is having a major affect on the mental health of those caught up in the system...
"Anecdotally we are seeing increasing numbers of patients coming through over the last 2-3 years with mental health problems exacerbated by changes to the benefit system" says Dr Tom Tasker of Salford Clinical Commissioning Group.
Salford's Supported Tenancies Team adds: "Our clients all have multiple issues including drug/alcohol, domestic violence, mental health, homelessness. Sanctions are having a huge impact on them and their ability to secure and sustain accommodation.
"The frequency and length of sanctions can leave them with no money for basic essentials such as food and heating" the Team explains "Sanctions can also cause breaks in their claims which lead to housing benefit being stopped and this can put their home at risk or leave them homeless. Sanctions also have an impact on the likelihood of re-offending as no income leads to shoplifting food and other essential items."
Salford Central Foodbank is now providing 2,982 food parcels per year; 4,568 free meals and 2,050 subsidised meals. Meanwhile, Salford's Immediate Emergency Assistance (IEA) - former DWP crisis loans – saw the reason given for applications rise from 31% in April 2015 to 46% in July 2015 for those who had sanctions imposed or had their benefits stopped. All this is happening against a backdrop of cuts which is eroding society's safety net by the day.
It all points to a massive attack on the groups of people who can least cope with the benefits regime and can least cope with its sanctions...and doesn't even encourage them to get work – just leaves them more destitute...
"The implementation of the DWP's conditionality and sanctions regime in Salford continues to cause distress and destitution for claimants and an increased demand for support for the city's public and community and voluntary sector agencies" the report concludes
"...Local case studies collated over the past year continue to corroborate this and illustrate the devastating impact sanctions can have on the lives of people who are already struggling to make ends meet" it adds "Sanctions affect an individual's ability to meet essential living expenses for themselves and family such as food and fuel, but can also lead to longer term problems including debt, rent and council tax arrears and in some cases destitution due to the potential of repeat and longer term sanctions under the more stringent legislative regime..."
The Task Force makes a number of recommendations including the establishment of an ombudsman for claimants, more resources for independent welfare debt and advice, Salford Council to commit to maintaining current funding levels for its Immediate Emergency Assistance budget and to promote its Discretionary Support Scheme to claimants; the implementation of actions to reverse the trend of 16-25 years olds moving away from state support, and for an independent enquiry into conditionality and benefit sanctions regime...
* DWP Benefit Conditionality and Sanctions in Salford – One Year On is published by Salford City Partnership – click here to read the full report
The Task Force is made up of representatives from Salford CVS, Salford Unemployed Community Resource Centre, Salford Citizen's Advice Bureau and Salford Council's Welfare Rights and Debt Advice Service, Customer and Support Services, Skills and Work Commissioning Team and Discretionary Support Service.
• See also previous Salford Star articles on benefit sanction protests in Salford – click here and click here