Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Secret Sanctions

Campaigners say Jobcentre workers are imposing unfair conditions on jobseekers and even stopping their benefits without telling them, leaving them vulnerable, penniless and desperate. Gary Ryan investigates…

David Clapson died trying to find work. His body was found surrounded by printouts of his CV and application forms. The diabetic ex-soldier’s £71.50 a week Jobseeker’s Allowance had been stopped because he missed an appointment with a Jobcentre Plus adviser. He couldn’t afford food or electricity to power the fridge where he stored his medication. The cause of his death was an acute lack of insulin; the coroner found that his stomach was empty. At 59, he had spent his final days penniless, starving and alone.

This summer, Clapson’s younger sister Gill Thompson launched an online petition calling for an independent inquiry into his death. “Like many others, I believe that benefit sanctions – penalties by the government for things like missing Jobcentre meetings – are completely out of control and putting the most in need at risk,” she says. “I don’t want anybody else to die like this.”

In Britain today, 2.4 million people are unemployed, competing for 503,000 vacancies – one in four will not find a job, no matter what they do. Every jobseeker agrees to a set of conditions they must fulfill in order to claim support; if they fail one of these, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) will stop some or all of their benefits for a minimum of four weeks, rising to three years. Sanctions are nothing new, but were toughened up in 2012 by the coalition government, who claim they positively motivate people to step up their search for work – and are continuing to make them tougher.

Some 860,000 people were sanctioned in the year to June 2013, many for spurious or arbitrary reasons. Every two minutes, a young person has their benefits stopped. Meanwhile, whistleblowers have claimed Jobcentre staff’s own jobs are under threat if they fail to apply sanctions. The question is being asked: does the Jobcentre exist to find people work, or simply to get them off benefits by any means?