Meet Sarah. Sarah receives Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) as she’s too disabled to be able to hold down a job. As someone in the Work Related Activity Group of ESA, she is required to take steps to “prepare for work”. But after failing to complete a CV, Sarah had her benefits sanctioned. “My benefit is back to normal now,” as she told the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) official leaflet on sanctioning. “I’m really pleased with how my CV looks.”
Except she didn’t. Sarah never spoke to the DWP. Sarah never had her benefits sanctioned. She was never even assessed for Employment and Support Allowance. Because Sarah doesn’t actually exist.
As of this week, we know Sarah’s story – like other so-called case studies on the DWP’s sanctions material – was actually invented by the government. Or as a DWP spokesperson put it, created for “illustrative purposes.”
These “illustrative” cases are distinctively positive about having their benefits taken from them. In fact, “Sarah” is practically grateful for it.
“I didn’t have a good reason for not doing [my CV] and I was told I’d lose some of my payment”, she tells the DWP leaflet next to a photo of “her” smiling. “I decided to complete my CV and told my work coach.”
Now, there are several levels of sinister about that. A government department – notably one responsible for, among others, chronically ill and disabled people – has been caught faking a document in a bid to engender support for one of its policies. A policy that has been receiving substantial criticism from journalists, MPs, and oversight bodies.
Add to that this is not a local council policy issuing small fines for parking offences. This is a nationwide social security policy that has the power to arbitrarily remove the money people need in order to live.
Consider also the fact that the government did not freely admit wrongdoing here. The only reason the truth came out at all is because the website Welfare Weekly made a Freedom of Information (FoI) request asking the DWP to provide “any evidence” to prove that the comments used were from “genuine” claimants. This was not a case of departmental error, full disclosure, and holding your hands up. This was a case of getting caught out.
Back on 1 August, disability campaigners, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), were investigating the fact the sanction leaflet in question had mysteriously disappeared from the DWP’s website. DPAC had spotted the fact that “Sarah” – that is, the photo dubbed “Sarah” and featured in the sanction leaflet – was the same as one used in Universal Credit promotion material (another controversial, failing DWP policy).
As a journalist who follows this area, I knew about this. Benefit cuts campaigners knew about this. Welfare Weekly knew enough to go on to make the FoI request. It is hard to believe two weeks passed without several figures at the DWP knowing – whether that was further staff members learning of the fakes or the staff responsible for them noticing journalists and campaigners were starting to get suspicious.
Yet at no point did anyone at the DWP disclose what was happening. Indeed, as the leaflet disappeared from the DWP’s website, we know someone took the step of later quietly removing the sanction material from public viewing. Twenty-four hours after the story broke, we have no idea what, how much, or when Iain Duncan Smith – the Secretary of State – ministers, or advisers knew.
Does anyone else feel a little dirty? Remember it was only this month that the UK statistics watchdog censured the DWP for “understating the scale” of its sanctions regime – essentially failing to release adequate data to give jobseekers or the public a genuine picture of the way it’s imposing sanctions.
We know Jobcentre staff are pressured to “trip up” vulnerable jobseekers in order to log more sanctions, and people with learning difficulties or mental health problems are being routinely left to watch their benefits be stopped without understanding what is happening.
We know that the DWP set the hardship fund up – that’s the emergency money meant to help people survive during their sanction period – in a way that bans jobseekers from applying for one until they’ve been without money for two weeks, while making the application process so difficult that, according to the latest MP inquiry into sanctions, “the people potentially most in need of the hardship system were the least likely to be able to access it”. We know people have had their benefits sanctioned and been left to die.
The revelation that the DWP has faked information to distort this reality is reflective of how deep the rot is in the entire sanction system. When it comes to removing people’s benefits, the government now believes it can get away with anything.