Kesia Reeve: Welfare system must not push people into destitution

FILM-MAKER Ken Loach is about to finish his latest film, I, Daniel Blake, based on people’s experiences of the benefit system and sanctions. He described the current system as ‘one of conscious cruelty…bearing
 down on those least able to bear it”.

Based on our research with homelessness charity Crisis over the past year, I am very inclined to agree with him. In 1966, Loach’s seminal film Cathy Come Home brought the problem of homelessness to the public consciousness.

For the past year, I’ve led a team at Sheffield Hallam researching the experience of benefit sanctions amongst homeless people. The results – and the implications for vulnerable people – have greatly concerned us.

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In 2012 the coalition Government introduced the harshest regime of benefit sanctions in the history of the British welfare system – claimants can now have their benefit withdrawn for up to three years if they fail to meet the stringent conditions placed upon them. The policy is justified on the basis that no one should get ‘something for nothing’, and is premised on unfounded, stereotyped notions of benefit claimants as willingly welfare dependent, inhabiting a culture that leaves them unwilling and unmotivated to seek work.

There has been growing concern about the impact of this new regime on homeless and other vulnerable claimants, with anecdotal evidence amassing of unrealistic conditions, unfair sanctions and dire consequences for those affected.

For the first time we have been able to estimate robustly how many homeless people are sanctioned and explore how justified those sanction decisions really were. We were expecting some stark findings, but the results still surprised us.

Drawing on a survey of more than 1,000 people from homeless hostels and day centres in 21 cities, along with 42 in-depth interviews, the report we produced provides detailed accounts of people being forced to sleep on the street, coping with severe hunger and going without heating in winter. Our survey respondents were at least twice as likely to be sanctioned as the total claimant population – 39 per cent had their benefit withdrawn as a sanction at least once in the past year.

It shows that 21 per cent reported becoming homeless as a result of being sanctioned, nearly eight out of 10 had gone hungry or skipped meals, three quarters said it negatively affected their mental health and 60 per cent had found it harder to look for work. Many were relying heavily on overstretched food banks and charities to survive.

Worse of all, those who were sanctioned had just the kind of attitude and disposition to work that the Government seeks to foster. They were keen to work (even those deemed unfit to do so), many were pursuing their own strategies for finding work and improving their employability, and the majority even supported a system of conditionality and sanctions.

Virtually everyone we interviewed had done all they could to meet their conditions. Not, then, people ‘wilfully refusing’ to comply, who need the threat of sanction to incentivise them.

But they were sanctioned nevertheless. Not because of ‘behavioural failings’ but because of systemic problems or inappropriate requirements that far exceeded respondents’ capabilities and circumstances. They were hampered by a system that places unrealistic demands upon them, that fails to recognise and account for their circumstances and vulnerabilities, and that practices little discretion or flexibility.

Take the case of Adam, who was sanctioned for failing to do the requisite job searching. He was actively seeking work but was doing so by delivering CVs in person. Adam is not IT proficient, but his claimant commitment specified he must job search online only.

Or Ja, who was sanctioned twice for failing to attend appointments for which he had received no notification.

Meanwhile, Lee has had three sanctions, all for missing appointments. Lee had been very ill during this time, with cancer amongst other things, but struggled to get the necessary medical evidence (mainly through being too ill to pursue it) to prove he was too unwell to attend.

These stories are happening in every major city across the UK.

As Ken Loach comes out once again fighting for the voiceless in this country, I can only hope he can now do the same for benefit claimants.

The contrast between the founding principles of the welfare state and the contemporary fact of a welfare system that withdraws crucial protection from significant numbers of the poorest people at a time of crisis is a very stark one.

My concern is that this punitive approach to welfare will transform the nature of poverty, pushing people out of state support and into destitution.

Kesia Reeve is an academic at Sheffield Hallam University who has investigated benefit sanctions in conjunction with the homeless charity Crisis.