Living on the breadline

Benefit sanctions are starting to bite in the Lancaster area
Benefit sanctions are starting to bite in the Lancaster area

Parents, their young children and vulnerable adults are going hungry and cold for months at a time as strict 
benefits sanctions bite.

A new report published by North Lancashire Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) has laid bare the shocking effects of tougher regulations on benefits, introduced in October 2012.

In some cases people with severe mental health problems are being left 
without any money for up to six months, parents are forced to collect food parcels to feed their children and have nothing to clothe them and keep them warm, and Job Centre mistakes are resulting in “inhumane” lengthy sanctions with little chance of a successful appeal. One desperate man said he felt suicidal and nearly turned to crime to survive.

According to the report, between July and September 2014, 87 people attended North Lancashire CAB experiencing hardship because their benefit had been sanctioned.

Since 2011, there has been a 17-fold increase in those in need, including those who are ill or disabled and claim Employment Support Allowance (ESA).

Fifty-year-old Morecambe man Michael Tomlinson is one of those statistics.

The Westminster Road resident, who suffers from depression, missed an appointment at the Job Centre and had his benefits stopped for 26 weeks.

“I went in on the Monday, and the advisor said ‘I’ll see you next week’,” he said.

“I lost my job search form, but went back on the Monday morning, and was told my appointment had been on the Friday.

“I had nothing at all for two weeks, no money for food or electricity.

“I went to get food parcels, and had to borrow money wherever I could, I even considered shoplifting to get food. I was suicidal.

“I suffer from severe depression, and for the past few years I’ve been caring for my mother and brother.

“What can you do? It’s a nasty situation, disgusting really.

“I’ve had some job interviews and they say they’ll get back to me, but they never do.

“Looking for 30 jobs a week is just too much.”

Mr Tomlinson said he was hoping to get a job as a carer, but said he was told he lacked experience.

The report presents a number of case studies, including the story of a single father with two children who claimed a range of benefits including Job Seekers Allowance.

While the children were visiting their mother, one of them had a serious injury and the father was called there.

Because he was away he was unable to attend his job search session. His JSA was suspended for two and a half months, and his appeal was turned down, resulting in the family living on 25 per cent less for more than three months, during a time of severe stress.

The report said the failure to take into consideration the personal circumstances of the claimant when applying a severe sanction on occasion borders on the inhumane.

Austin Staunton, North Lancashire CAB manager said: “This process is putting very vulnerable people into a position where they’re left without money.

“All you end up doing with someone like Mr Tomlinson is punishing him for his circumstances.

“We’re looking to have discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to see how a sanction can be applied in a fair and reasonable way, but I’m doubtful that a sanction does much good anyway.”

Mr Staunton said he was concerned that those in need would turn to high interest lenders for quick cash, further increasing the problem.

The new sanctions include fixed sanctions of 13 weeks for the first failure to comply with the Claimant’s Commitment, 26 weeks for the second and 156 weeks (three years) for the third.

The report is proposing that the Government reduces the length of sanctions to no longer than four weeks for even the most severe compliance failure, and the CAB is asking the Department for Work and Pensions to investigate a claimant’s personal and family circumstances before imposing a sanction, and that “unnecessary suffering” does not arise as a result of the sanction.

Official Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) statistics show that the number of JSA sanctions in the year to 31 March 2014, after reconsiderations and appeals, was 918,593, the highest since JSA was introduced in 1996.