It’s all over now, isn’t it? With Brexit in focus and the coalition government long out of office, it would be easy to believe the Tories’ brutal “welfare” policies were a thing of the past. The bedroom tax is old news. The once notorious “fit for work” tests are no longer set pieces in ministers’ press speeches. Benefit sanctions – for years, the epitome of post-crash “tough on welfare” posture – are a dated crisis.
Except, that’s what the Tories would like you to think. The language of disabled people “languishing” on sickness benefits may have quietened and enthusiasm for austerity – now an electoral risk – be spoken of less zealously, but the policies have gone nowhere. For proof, take a look at the official figures released this month showing the scale of benefit sanctions against disabled and chronically ill people since the Conservatives first introduced stricter measures. More than 70,000 people on the out-of-work sickness benefit (employment and support allowance) ESA had their benefits stopped between December 2012 and December 2016. More than 5,000 had them stopped for at least six months. That’s wheelchair users and people with learning difficulties left with bare cupboards and cold homes.
ESA sanctions are made for a fixed period of one, two or four weeks. But they carry on indefinitely if claimants are deemed not to follow jobcentre rules. The vast majority of recent ESA sanctions – more than 90% since December 2015 – have been a punishment for people failing to take part in “work-related activity”: anything from skills training or drawing up a CV to community work placements. Disabled people going through the system repeatedly report this can mean being sanctioned for not going to a meeting despite being in too much pain to get out of bed.
This is not a coincidence but, rather, reflective of a political culture that has fetishised getting disabled people into work at any cost. It’s the same thinking that from April resulted in many people on ESA permanently losing £30 a week under the guise that it would give them an “incentive to work”. Mid-recession, and on the brink of the biggest squeeze on workers’ living standards in decades, the drive to sanction disabled people too ill to work spoke to the birth of a wider narrative of suspicion around disability benefit claimants, actively propagated by large sections of the media and the political class.
Removing the money people need is shameful. But to do this to disabled people is a stain on the national conscience
How else could sanctioning have been allowed to continue? Two years ago, there were warnings sanctions were unfair, excessively punitive, and causing destitution. Whitehall’s official spending watchdog has found there is no evidence sanctions actually work. Yet barely any modification has been made. In July, the Department for Work and Pensions announced that people with mental health conditions who have their jobseeker’s allowance sanctioned will now be eligible for immediate access to hardship payments – as if not leaving a young mum with depression without food for two weeks is vast progress.
The headlines may fade but the misery doesn’t. In fact, it’s increasing. Early signs of the roll out of universal credit – the “all in one” benefit system – suggest the new benefit is adopting a particularly pernicious sanctioning culture. This month’s same government figures show the number of sanctions on people on UC are at an all-time monthly high, and since its launch in 2015, more than 100,000 UC claimants have been penalised. Meanwhile, with so many families facing sanctions and benefit delays, the Trussell Trust reported a record number of its food banks running out of food this summer.
Social policy reform based on the premise of removing the money people need in order to live is always shameful. But to do this to disabled people – who are receiving benefits because they are not well enough to work – is a stain on the national conscience. Theresa May and her ministers, by choosing to continue the heightened sanction regime, are as complicit as their predecessors who launched it. Five years on, the government is still starving disabled people. That this is now largely occurring under the radar makes it all the more disturbing.