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2 February 2015updated 27 Sep 2015 5:30am

If Labour is committed to mental health, why doesn’t it scrap benefit sanctions?

Labour’s unwillingness to completely break with the coalition’s benefit sanctions will hurt those with mental health issues the most.

By James Elliott

“Getting serious” about mental health is all the rage in this election, with Nick Clegg talking about the taboo of suicide and Ed Miliband’s claim that mental health is the “biggest unaddressed health challenge of our age”. So why not pledge to abolish benefit sanctions which punish many of those already afflicted by both mental health issues and poverty? Unfortunately for those being sanctioned, the apparent Labour/coalition divide on benefit sanctions, with Labour pledging to abolish sanctions targets, is only surface deep, and beneath it there is a cross-party assumption that sanctions are necessary.

Unite the union has claimed over 2m people had their benefits stopped in the last two years, meaning 2014 saw the highest number of sanctions since jobseeker’s allowance was introduced. This especially affect those with conditions difficult to asses such as mental illnesses, and 120 disabled people have been given a three-year sanction since October 2012.

Last week, researcher Kayleigh Garthwaite told MPs she found claimants on incapacity benefit left penniless, including a 23-year-old pregnant woman with mental health issues, who hadn’t eaten “a proper cooked meal” in two weeks and was living on leftovers. Testimonies are widely available through Disabled People Against the Cuts and DWP Unspun, who found reasons for sanctions included selling Remembrance Day poppies, not job-hunting on Christmas day, not being able to afford travel to an interview, and having a heart attack. In the worst cases benefits being stopped has resulted in starvation or suicide, and the Guardian believe the Department for Work and Pensions are holding 60 “unpublished investigations” into such deaths.

On the one hand, Labour have pledged they will scrap the coalition’s alleged targets for sanctions, which have caused the increase in their use, but are intending to stick to coalition, and New Labour thinking, that sanctions are a key part of welfare.

Liam Byrne, when shadow secretary for work and pensions, criticised and pledged to end “a nationwide culture of targets, league tables and intimidation at the heart of the Department for Work and Pensions sanctions regime.” Now his successor, Rachel Reeves has argued, “Sanctions have been part of our social security system since its foundation, and the principle of mutual obligation and putting conditions on benefit claims were integral to the progressive labour market policies of the last Labour government.”

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The “last Labour government” to which she refers used sanctions as a core part of its “New Deal” back in 1998, with the announcement that Labour was, “toughening up the penalties for those who refused jobs or training”, in other words, they would be using benefit sanctions. Many of these came through “workfare”, a regime where jobseekers were forced onto mandatory work placements in exchange for their benefits. The Child Poverty Action Group, which is criticising the coalition, said back in 1999 that New Labour’s benefit sanctions was “a step towards a US-style workfare system”, which Alistair Darling, Social Security Secretary at the time, defended as “harsh, but justifiable”.

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The reality for the unemployed, including those struggling with mental health issues, is that after 2015 sanctions will still be there, just delivered in a “progressive” and “justifiable” way. This political triangulation from Labour isn’t good enough. As the testimonies above show, when you lose your benefits, how are you supposed to eat?

We need to break not just with the current regime of sanctions as Labour plan, but to break with New Labour-style “workfarism” altogether and towards social security that supports those in need, not stripping them of their income, dignity and leaving them alone and unsupported.

James Elliott sits on the NUS National Executive Council representing disabled students in the UK. He can be reached @JFGElliott