Benefit sanctions: Churches accuse DWP of 'using hunger as a weapon'


Sanctions cause hardship, hunger, and are "purely punitive", a coalition of churches and charities has said.

The group collectively criticised the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) over its response to a select committee's report that the sanction policy for benefits is "purely punitive" and driving claimants into deeper poverty.

The group, which includes the Church of Scotland, Church Action on Poverty, the Methodist Church, the Baptist Union and the Church in Wales, has called for "immediate suspension of sanctions against families with children and people with mental-ill health" and a "full independent review of the regime."

Rather than undertake the full independent review called for, Iain Duncan Smith announced yesterday that the DWP is going to trial an 'early warning system' for benefit claimants facing sanctions. Under the trial, claimants will be given a 'yellow-card' fourteen days before their benefits are reduced, giving them time to qualify why they failed to meet the commitments required to get benefits.

Under current rules the sanctions take effect immediately.

"In refusing to undertake a full review, the DWP is stubbornly ignoring the calls of parliament, expert advisers, Churches and charities. Most importantly, it is condemning people, many of whom have also spoken out eloquently against the inhumanity of the current practice, to unjust and pointless punishment," said Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church.

Criticising the decision of the DWP to install a 'yellow card' system, Morrison suggested that the policy did not tackle the problem at its cause.

"If a court is working to a bad set of laws for a bad set of reasons and making bad and unreliable decisions, it's not the sentencing policy you look at," he said.

"'Yellow cards' will reduce the number of sanctions, which is welcome, but won't address the fundamental problems that occur long before the decision to sanction has been made. That's why we need a full independent review."

The consequences of the policy are severe, leaving vulnerable people without money to pay for essentials such as food and heating.

This can "have a damaging impact not only on their physical and mental health but also the health of family members, including children, who depend upon them," said Dr Richard Vautrey, a GP in Leeds and deputy chair of the British Medical Association's General Practitioners Committee.

"Government policy directly puts the health of patients we care for at risk. Immediate action should be taken to end these punitive actions."

In March this year, the group published a report showing that nearly 100,000 children had been affected by sanctions in 2014 alone and that people with mental health problems were being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day.

"The Government claims that sanctions help people into work, but the evidence for this claim is practically non-existent," said Morrison. "However, there is plenty of evidence that sanctions cause hardship, suffering and hunger. Any system that seeks to 'change people's behaviour' by using hunger as a weapon is immoral."