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Social Justice

Benefit claimants suspected of ‘wrong-doing and deceit’ when trying to access government support, says study

The DWP is handing out sanctions to universal credit claimants at nearly pre-pandemic levels despite cost of living crisis

Analysts have called for “humane” reforms to the universal credit system as official figures showed the government is sanctioning people at nearly pre-Covid rates.

Around 46,000 people relying on social security were sanctioned in November last year, meaning the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) had temporarily cut their payments.

This is a punitive measure often applied to people who are considered to have failed to meet the conditions put on their claims, such as missing a job centre appointment or turning down an interview for a job the DWP believes they are fit for.

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Campaigners have warned that hundreds of thousands of already-struggling households could be pushed into destitution by the cost of living crisis as energy and food bills soar. But – after slowing sanctions during the pandemic – the government is sanctioning people at nearly the same rate seen before March 2020, with the numbers expected to have risen since November.

“Too often [DWP staff] treats you like you must be lying and like what you have said isn’t true,” said Julian Dalley, a support worker who has experienced homelessness and contributed to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report. 

“The staff have no idea what it’s like to be on the street or moving from one friend’s sofa to the next. People who hit rock bottom need time and support to get themselves sorted out, but instead of support, DWP staff often feel like they are judging you, that you have failed and need to be taught a lesson.”

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Chancellor Rishi Sunak resisted calls to increase benefits in line with the cost of living, as economists warn inflation could hit above eight per cent in the coming weeks. His decision to lift social security payments by just 3.1 per cent – based on inflation recorded last September – will couple with increasing sanctions to push more vulnerable people into hardship this year, IPPR said.

The analysts said people on universal credit are “not being treated as individuals, with their own circumstances and needs”, meaning “impossible” and “inappropriate” conditions are placed on them when they sign up to receive benefits and make them more at risk of being sanctioned.

The government must do more to support people on low incomes whatever their circumstances, said Henry Parkes, senior economist at IPPR.

“It absolutely shouldn’t be making people’s lives any harder by imposing inappropriate conditions and punitive sanctions on them in a time of need,” he added.

“Alongside desperately needed action to increase the value of universal credit to keep up with the rising cost of living, we also need urgent action to ensure our social security system offers genuine security where people fall back on it. 

“This should include urgent reform of the punitive sanctions regime, and a wholesale review of how the system can treat every claimant with dignity and respect.” 

Benefits claimants with particularly complex needs are often finding themselves at the sharp end of an “often-punitive system”, according to the report, which has the potential to be “lethal” for some.

Job centres are still using sanctions as a core part of how they operate despite limited proof backing them as effective and well-documented evidence that they can lead to higher food bank use and greater risk of rent arrears.

People who had experienced the benefits system told researchers there was a power dynamic between them and the DWP which made them feel pressured to agree to unsuitable conditions as part of their claim.

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Others said the open-plan nature of many job centres made it difficult for them to raise concerns linked to personal information, while the presence of security guards put some “on edge”.

“Our specialist teams working in hospitals with homeless patients hear too many stories of sanctions, exclusions or inappropriate barriers being enforced by the benefits system,” said Alex Bax, chief executive of homeless healthcare charity Pathway. 

“It often seems that the system withdraws support from people precisely when they need it most, when someone’s circumstances suddenly fall apart, when a relationship has broken down or when bad luck strikes,” he added. 

“The benefits system defaults to assume wrong-doing and deceit. For people who’ve been made homeless, perhaps in the context of a mental illness or battling an addiction, universal credit is too often another source of stress and difficulty, rather than a basic building block of their recovery.”

Wide-scale reforms are needed to ensure universal credit delivers a higher standard of living, the researchers said, calling on Sunak to increase benefits by 8.1 per cent and boost child benefit by £10 per child per week.

This should come alongside a change in how claimants are treated within the system, according to the report, including a reduction in the use of sanctions and giving people the power to change how and when their benefits are paid. Claimants should also be able to discuss their personal circumstances in private if they wish to do so, the think tank recommended.

Work coaches must be better trained to spot signs which could indicate a person has complex support needs, the researchers said, and public servants including doctors and social workers should be able to raise concerns with the DWP to ensure claimants are not “set up to fail”.

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