Benefit sanctions are causing devastation in people’s lives and our communities.

Our Unite Community Group has produced leaflets and written articles. We have also protested locally and organised an evening to inform, educate and debate on the issue.

It all began with our leaflet containing facts about benefit sanctions.

Stop Benefit Sanctions

We followed this with a press release which we sent out to local news outlets Benefit Sanctions Press Release.

Our protest joined many others around the country in a national day of action against benefit sanctions organised by Unite Community.  The day of action was supported by faith groups, charities and other community around the UK.

Taunton Protest

Next we organised a benefit sanctions open meeting where we invited 2 guest speakers, Andy Mitchell who spoke about the effects of benefit sanctions and Richard Capps from PCS union to talk from the perspective of DWP employees working in UK Job Centres.

Our local Labour Group published a summary of the event – The fight for the soul of the welfare state.

Finally here is our final report from our benefit sanction evening.

Public Meeting on Sanctions Tuesday 14th April 2015


Bridgwater and Taunton Unite Community Group organized events in both Bridgwater and Taunton as part of the STOP BENEFIT SANCTIONS National Day of Action (19/03/2015).

This open meeting was introduced and chaired by Glen Burrows and included 2 key speakers;

  • Andy Mitchell describing his own experience of being sanctioned as well as highlighting some of the worst effects of sanctions
  • Richard Capps (PCS Union Rep) setting out the difficulties experienced by PCS members working within the Job Centre system

Glen opened the meeting by emphasizing the Community Group’s solidarity with benefit claimants in response to the persecution they are suffering and the unacceptable consequences of the punitive system in operation. Glen deplored how the measures were reminiscent of those brought in by government in the mid eighties whilst drawing attention to the dirty job the PCS members now faced in having to implement and apply the regime.

Andy began by describing how he first became a claimant in 2013 after working pretty regularly for the past twenty years – Andy had no idea what a sanction was and it was never explained. Online research revealed that 1.83 million people sanctioned in the last 3 years alone. If it is the minimum 4 weeks that’s over £280 lost.

Andy referred to research conducted by Dr David Webster at Glasgow University comparing fines inflicted by magistrates’ courts for offences such as driving under the influence of drink. The direct and indirect consequences of benefit sanctions are suffered without the due consideration given to an offender in a court and without the negotiation into weekly payment rates that is available for a criminal sanction.

The situation for ESA (Employment and Support Allowance) is comparable, with 100 claimants a day being sanctioned, mainly for arriving late for appointments. Andy reflected on the way in which many such claimants may already be suffering mental health problems: they were effectively being punished for being unwell.

Andy cited examples which are now posted on the group website:

  • 50% of the growth in rough sleeping was connected to sanctions – A report led by Homeless charity Crisis showed that the biggest drivers of homelessness were government welfare changes such as the bedroom tax, increased benefit sanctions and housing benefit caps.
  • Women pushed into prostitution because of benefit sanctions
  • The wider and long term impact on children: New figures show impact of poverty on GCSE performance across Wales – Wales Online

Andy described his two experiences of sanctions. The first in August 2013 when he participated in a volunteer morning which his adviser had encouraged; he was then questioned since the activity matched his skill set. Andy believes they suspected he could have been paid for it. He only discovered he had been sanctioned when his benefit failed to arrive on the due date. His direct debit arrangements for three items defaulted incurring three bank charges of £25, his broadband and his credit card payment defaults resulted in a total of £160 in penalties in addition to the problem of meeting his normal expenses. Although his benefit was reinstated 12 days later the damage had been done.

Andy tried to claim the exceptional costs incurred but after a month of trying to pursue the claim he gave up.

The second sanction occurred after Andy was encouraged to consider self employment. Andy’s Housing Association ran a course and the job centre adviser agreed it would be useful stating that during the course Andy would not need to do the usual jobsearch activities but simply log the training. Andy attended daily, leaving at 7.30am and returning home after 6pm each day. At his next signing day Andy met a new adviser. He was told that as the course was not DWP approved he must provide jobsearch information. Andy left not knowing if he had been sanctioned but discovered this when his benefit was not paid in as expected. Andy went into the jobcentre but could not get a clear answer and was told it would take a couple of weeks.

  • Andy’s electric ran out and he couldn’t top up the key,
  • Andy went to CAB who gave him some questions to put to the jobcentre once a decision to sanction had been made. They also told him to ask about the hardship fund – the jobcentre refused to give him the necessary forms.
  • The following week Andy ran out of food.
  • Coming up to Xmas eve with no food – no electric he got diarrhea. Psoriasis appeared and he got an eye infection.
  • Andy’s mental and physical health deteriorated – he felt he had hit rock bottom

Andy signed on a week later and was told that his sanction demonstrated he lacked ‘a work ethic’ and was put on workfare in spite of 20 years work experience.

At this Andy went home and took all the pills in the medicine cabinet and attempted suicide. Andy had time in hospital and since has received mental health treatment. He still receives support 15 months later.

In the last 2 years he has had 6 months’ work through agency and 3 months working part-time. He’s done a lot of volunteering as well as becoming an ACTIVIST IN TRYING TO MAKE THINGS BETTER

Richard opened by reminding us that we are all in it together, on both sides of the desk. Richard described his own background as a visiting officer for what was then the DHSS over 30 years ago in London. Richard had then felt that the work had value – this has been lost over the last ten years. He previously operated with a lot of “carrot” and very little “stick” – it is now all “stick”.

Richard presented the significant loss of morale within the staff with voluntary exit schemes oversubscribed. The union is fighting to defend the public sector ethos and in spite of the acceptance of the arguments put forward by writers/commentators such as Owen Jones demolishing the myths years ago the struggle is no easier.

Richard set out the punitive nature of the sanctions and the severity compared to criminal sanctions as well as the alarming increase in the use of sanctions and described the process as a political attack aimed at reducing the unemployment figures. The strategy being to threaten claimants off benefits so they are prepared to do anything but claim.

What have been the results? Richard highlighted the growth in self-employment where people do anything to try and earn a living even though it may be well below the living wage. He called for a halt to a process which results in suicides and an urgent need to take a proper look at the way it works.

Richard drew attention to the impact on children with an estimated 93,000 children directly affected by sanctions last year (source?) and the growth of foofdbanks as a direct result of sanctions

Richard also drew attention to the positive alternative methods that could be adopted based on the union’s recent policy announcement “There is an alternative: The case against cuts in public spending”

Richard was also able to point out that a survey of PCS members resulted in 70% stating they believed sanctions had no impact and 66% who believe claimants are pressured inappropriately.

Finally Richard summed up his view by reiterating that the sanctions regime is pernicious and should be abolished stating that the only way forward is for the PCS to fight alongside other unions including Unite and that will become even more imperative under Universal Credit

  • Glen expressed her thanks to both speakers, invited questions and proposed that actions could be offered.
  • A member expressed sympathy with Andy having had a similar problem, stating how valuable getting support had been, particularly from someone with experience of the system
  • Andy M referred to a Durham group who had access to computers and IT support, ran a food bank and provided support in dealing with the jobcentre including sessions on how to avoid sanctions
  • It was proposed that a first stage could be to leaflet outside the job centre to explain to claimants the process of hardship payments, mandatory reconsideration, Appeal and to offer support.
  • It was acknowledged that the stigma needed to be overcome and the general public still needed educating in understanding the truth about the sanctions regime
  • Sites that might be useful to look at were suggested including
  • A discussion about the normalisation of poverty and ways to counter attitudes lead to agreement to seek ways to get over the message that will end the myth of scroungers

It was proposed that a press release be prepared and arrangements made to leaflet claimants outside the jobcentre.

Forms of support and action suggested included:

  • Highlighting the existing Unite support scheme based at Sydenham.
  • Establishing a link with the food bank.
  • Boycotting shops who don’t participate in donating food.
  • Seeking to get the council to adopt a resolution calling for a ban on sanctions similar to proposed in Fife Council –

Andy’s Links

  • Renfrewshire – Woman compares being late for jobcentre appointment to how she felt as domestic violence victim
  • Desperate Glasgow residents are walking miles to access Maryhill Foodbank. Poverty hit city residents are walking miles to visit
  • Horton Housing Association marks 30 years of supporting city’s homeless
  • Charities say homeless being let down as rough sleeping rises again | Society  The Guardian
  • Doncaster women forced to prostitute themselves for £5 to pay bills – The Star
  • The story of a young woman benefit sanctioned. Abused as a teenager, put in care and pregnant
  • New figures show impact of poverty on GCSE performance across Wales – Wales Online
  • Pregnant mothers hit by benefit sanctions could give birth to less healthy babies – Mirror Online
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