Sunday, 22 February 2015

What does it feel like to be sanctioned? “There was nothing to live for. No food, heating, electric, hope.”

How do people cope after being sanctioned? This is the question no one seems to know the answer to.

In October 2012 the government introduced tougher rules for welfare claimants. The minimum amount of time for a job seekers allowance (JSA) sanction was lengthened so that anyone deemed to be breaking the rules (for example missing an appointment, turning down a job or arriving late for an interview) would have their money stopped for at least a month. The maximum sanction was increased from six months to three years.

At the recent work and pensions select committee, which was investigating the tougher sanctions regime, Esther McVey failed to demonstrate that the government had done any research into the impact they have on individual’s lives.

Since the new rules came in, a total of 884,479 people have been sanctioned at least once. 668,059 people have had to survive with no money for four weeks, 373,603 had to get by for three months and 2048 people were cut off for three years.

Here is one story, from the hundreds of thousands of people affected, of what it feels like to be unemployed and have your benefits suddenly withdrawn.

Jake’s story

Jake (not his real name) lives in the North of England and has been sanctioned twice for not attending appointments with his work programme provider, appointments he says he was not aware of.

The first time his money was stopped for six months, the second time was four weeks. He appealed the most recent sanction explaining he hadn't been told about the appointment and that he was on a work trial at a local factory when it was due to take place. Despite providing evidence and contacting his local MP he lost the case. “I had to get on with the sanction and grin and bear it” he says.

Jake relied on friends and family for support and went to a food bank so he could eat. Food banks provide three days of emergency food to people who have been referred to them. Jake didn’t always have enough to feed himself properly.

“I was malnourished and lost loads of weight as I wouldn’t eat for days on end."

Jake is angry. During the first sanction he says he was given wrong advice and was not made aware he had to continue attending the job centre to keep his claim live even though he was not receiving any money.

“It was a simple case of you are sanctioned and goodbye” he says. He doesn’t feel he was supported or listened to.

“I was given no help, advice, support whatsoever. No pointing in the direction of food banks, citizens advice, nothing at all.”

The situation he found himself in took a serious toll on his mental health.

“I was on anti-depressants and also considered suicide on a number of occasions. There was nothing to live for. No food, heating, electric, hope.

 “I pleaded with them, I said I will not be able to eat or live. I told them about my mental state and how I was on anti-depressants and that the sanction wasn’t helping me.”

The DWP emphasize that people can apply for hardship payments if they can prove they won’t have enough money to live on during a sanction. These payments are a reduced amount, usually 60% of Job seekers allowance. People have to wait two weeks before they can apply and many people are unaware of them.

Jake didn’t receive hardship payments. He applied but by the time he could sort it out the sanction period was over.

Over a year later Jake is still feeling the effects. He’d like to move but can’t due to rent arrears and says he will be paying back debts for the next decade.

“I am currently £3000 in debt as a result with rent arrears, council tax arrears and court costs from fighting the sanction.

“I’m going to be in debt for the whole of my thirties. Ten years in total to pay the debts off. All due to these draconian sanctions.”

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