Sanctions can be incurred by things like “rescheduling your job centre appointment because you have a job interview”. Photo: Getty
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Immoral or incompetent? With the DWP, it’s no longer a choice

What do they think happens when you cut off someone’s source of food, rent and heating for three months?

Immorality or incompetence? There’s no need for the choice, anymore. It’s been a long time since the Department for Work and Pensions – lest we forget, the governmental department that is actually responsible for work and those out of it – has been anything other than a cruel joke. The joke would be funny if people weren’t starving. But no worry, there’s food banks for that. Almost £3m of public money is now being spent on them, Panorama reported this week. Need is spreading. The line between the state and charity is blurring.

“Food banks are an inadequate plaster over a gaping wound,” Professor Liz Dowler, one of the authors of a recent government report about food banks says. “They do not solve the problems. And that they should be enshrined as an inadequate solution is deeply immoral.”

We crossed immoral a long time ago. The sort of immorality that positions itself as the moral one: judging, punishing, and starving.

Around 68,000 people are having their benefits stopped unfairly, leading them to have to use food banks, a Policy Exchange report found this week. These are people who have their benefits taken away for the first time, only to later successfully appeal against the decision (that’s about a third of all those sanctioned for the first time each year).

Take a look at the Tumblr “Stupid Sanctions” if you need an insight into the decision-making that is being used to justify removing the money people need to live. Rescheduling your job centre appointment because you have a job interview. A family member dying. Not filling in your job search evidence for jobs advertised on Christmas Day. Failing to complete your assessment because you had a heart attack in the middle of it. Four weeks, thirteen weeks…  These are just numbers when humans are figures. What does anyone think happens when you cut off someone’s source of food, rent and heating for three months? That it’s often happening because of incompetence just adds a further bad taste to the mouth.

“The welfare system must have a sharp set of teeth. That is why the sanctions regime is so important,” Guy Miscampbell, the author of this week’s report says.

“Issuing first time offenders, who may or may not have been fairly sanctioned, with a ‘yellow card’ in the form of a benefits card would be a more compassionate way of trying to help people back into work.”

This is what compassion looks like now. “A sharp set of teeth?” I wouldn’t trust this system to know where to bite.  

It was only last week that Personal Independence Payments (PIP) was found to be causing “distress and financial difficulties” due to mismanagement and outsourcing. The National Audit Office found PIP, the new disability benefit for people with extra care or mobility needs, will cost almost three and a half times more to administer than Disability Living Allowance – the benefit the government deemed it necessary to replace – and take double the amount of time to process (even after early failings had forced the DWP to stagger its national roll-out). Employment and Support Allowance, meanwhile, prized with the title of the DWP’s original disaster, has had all repeat assessments paused indefinitely due to Atos’s backlog. A temporary reprieve. This, for many, is something to be grateful for at this point.

There is rarely a reprieve from life and the effects are starting to show. More than three-quarters of mental health social workers say mental health is worsening in the communities they work in, according to a survey by Mind and The College of Social Work released today. Benefit cuts and unemployment are seeing people become “overwhelmed by life circumstances” at the same time as cuts in care budgets mean there’s often nowhere for them to go. Almost three-quarters of those affected are people needing help for the first time, the survey found. It can happen to anyone and nowadays it is.

Mark Wood, another face and another figure, struggled with complex mental health needs but was found fit for work. The 44 year old’s doctor had written to the job centre telling them that he was “extremely unwell and absolutely unfit for any work whatsoever” but he was left, as people are, to try and survive on £40 a week. Mark died a few months later, weighing 5st 8lbs. His family spoke out last week, calling for the system to treat people better. Treating claimants as people – desperate, scared, hungry – would be a start.

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.