Coronavirus: Return of benefit sanctions in middle of pandemic ‘is barbaric’

By John Pring

Disabled campaigners have described the government’s decision to reintroduce benefit sanctions – in the middle of a pandemic – as “barbaric” and “life threatening”.

The decision meant an end to the three-month suspension of benefit sanctions and conditionality* in England, Scotland and Wales, which had been introduced in March as part of the COVID-19 lockdown measures.

Jobcentres will start re-opening this week in England, but not in Scotland and Wales, where claimants will only receive services online and by phone.

This means that some claimants in England will now begin to have face-to-face discussions with work coaches in jobcentres.

But there has been little information on exactly how these steps will work and how they will affect disabled and other claimants.

Work and pensions secretary Therese Coffey said restoring conditionality and the threat of benefit sanctions was “an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are”.

But it came as the government continued to ease the lockdown that has been in place across England since March, while also imposing a local lockdown in Leicester after a spike of infections.

Millions of disabled people – many of them on out-of-work benefits and now potentially subject to the threat of sanctions – are still shielding from the virus.

Yesterday, work and pensions ministers also removed a crucial line from guidance for claimants of universal credit (UC) that previously assured them: “You will not get a sanction if you cannot keep to your Claimant Commitment because of coronavirus (COVID-19).”

This suggests that UC claimants will no longer be able to use the fact that they are shielding, or have COVID-19 symptoms, as a reason for breaching their claimant commitment (the agreement that sets out what they have to do to continue to receive UC).

DWP refused to comment on the removal of this line, or even to confirm that sanctions would now apply again to all claimants previously at risk of having one imposed, including those in the work-related activity group of employment and support allowance (and the equivalent universal credit group).

Instead, the department attempted to persuade journalists, including Disability News Service (DNS), that the move to restore sanctions was “compassionate” and “understanding”, that sanctions would not be imposed “for no good reason”, and that the re-imposition was “rooted in a new normal” and their use would be “more compassionate” and “reasonable” than pre-pandemic.

The decision to re-impose sanctions and conditionality from 1 July after a three-month pause was greeted with anger and disbelief by disabled activists.

Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC) held an online action yesterday to protest at the re-imposition.

DPAC said in a statement: “Claimants have been left both anxious and uncertain.

“There is now overwhelming evidence of both the serious harm that the sanctions regime inflicts on the most disadvantaged members of society and the fact that sanctions are punitive and counter-productive to the aim of getting people off benefits and into work.”

It also appealed to disabled people and allies to join the new Scrap Universal Credit Alliance.

Pam Duncan-Glancy, a disabled Labour parliamentary candidate at the last general election, said the decision to reintroduce sanctions was “barbaric”.

She said on Twitter: “The standard to which I hold the Gov in this regard is low. Even by that standard, this is off the scale.

“Brutal at the best of times, but in these times this policy on sanctions is a death sentence.”

Kerena Marchant, a Deaf campaigner who stood for Labour at the last general election, said in a video that restarting sanctions would place Deaf and disabled people “in an impossible situation”.

She said: “They will have to choose between the life-threatening risk of the hostile environment of the DWP and that of the pandemic. They both are life-threatening.

“We’ve already had DWP suicides and deaths and this could lead to more.”

Paula Peters, a member of DPAC’s national steering group, described in a video some of the personal testimonies of disabled people who have had universal credit sanctions imposed on them.

One woman, who was unsuccessful in four job interviews, was sanctioned because DWP said she was not happy enough, even though she had depression and anxiety.

Another woman was told by the jobcentre not to mention that she was disabled because such a term was “political”.

This woman was also accused of lying about her seizures, until she had a seizure in the jobcentre.

She was still sanctioned for three months and had to rely on friends and family for food, said Peters.

Another disabled activist, Andy Mitchell, said in a video to support the action: “We are still in the middle of a pandemic, we still have people shielding, we still have people self-isolating, we still have families home-schooling their children because they cannot go to school.

“We know that hundreds of thousands of people are about to lose their jobs, we know that the homeless are about to be released from hotels because the contracts have ended and the money has run out. And we have this situation in Leicester.

“We are still in the middle of a pandemic, yet DWP have dug in their heels and refused to extend the ban. This is wrong.”

Debbie Abrahams, Labour’s former shadow work and pensions secretary, also spoke in support of DPAC’s campaign, saying: “We know sanctions don’t work. In fact they can make things worse, dehumanising people and creating mental health problems.”

Ian Blackford, the SNP leader at Westminster, told Boris Johnson at prime minister’s questions yesterday that the decision was “heartless”, “cruel” and “unnecessary”.

Johnson asked Blackford “to think that he may be mistaken”.

Disability Rights UK said this week that the decision to reintroduce conditionality and sanctions was “appalling” and “must be reversed”.

Ken Butler, DR UK’s welfare rights and policy adviser, said: “Conditionality and sanctions actively harmed disabled people before both were lifted in March.

“To reintroduce them with no discussion, in the environment of an economic recession, with millions more universal credit claimants and amid a viral pandemic, shows a scant regard for the welfare and safety of disabled people.”

He also pointed out that the PCS union had warned that reopening jobcentres so soon “could create a perfect storm as staff and customers are faced with lack of social distancing, inadequate personal protective equipment and the real risk of COVID-19 being brought into workplaces”.

Coffey told MPs this week: “It is important that as the jobcentres fully reopen this week, we reinstate the need for a claimant commitment.

“It is an essential part of the contract to help people start to reconsider what vacancies there are, but I know that I can trust the work coaches and jobcentre managers, who are empowered to act proactively with people.”

A DWP spokesperson added: “We’ve been there for those who have lost jobs or have reduced hours in this pandemic, promptly processing new claims and getting money into the accounts of those in urgent need within days.

“Now our focus is rightly switching to getting Britain back into work.

“From July, people can make an appointment with their work coach if they can’t get the help they want online or over the phone and work coaches will be calling all claimants to help them get ready for the world of work.”

*Under conditionality, the rules claimants have to meet in order to avoid losing some or all of their out-of-work benefits through sanctions can include pledging to carry out a certain number of hours looking for and applying for jobs, networking, updating a CV, or attending training

Coronavirus: Return of benefit sanctions in middle of pandemic ‘is barbaric’

Disabled and ill benefit claimants overcharged for care due to DWP error

Botched transfer had knock-on effect on councils’ financial assessments

Disabled and chronically ill benefit claimants who were left thousands of pounds out of pocket by a government error may have also been overcharged by their local authorities for social care, it has emerged.

At least 110,000 benefit claimants were underpaid an average of £5,000 following a botched overhaul of incapacity benefits which began in 2011, according to the latest figures.

The error occurred when Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) officials transferred people from older benefits on to the wrong kind of employment support allowance (ESA), meaning they missed out on premium payments they were eligible for.

The Guardian understands that, as a knock-on effect, the error will have skewed financial assessments many councils undertake to determine how much these claimants should have contributed towards their social care costs.

Pat Sawh, 65, has received a refund of more than £2,000 from Enfield council, in north London, which is believed to be the first to begin addressing this issue. Her sons Stephen, 31, and Kris, 29, both have autism, while Stephen also has epilepsy and multiple allergies.

“Both my sons still live at home and my husband and I are pensioners,” she said. “This extra money is helping them a lot – without it they could not do as much.”

Wendy Berry, 75, helps run a group for carers of learning disabled adults in Enfield and helped Sawh bring her case to the attention of the council.

“The problem with this issue is that councils probably do not even realise that the DWP error had an impact on social care charging. It is very complicated. We suspect that very few councils have really thought about it,” she said.

“Charging for social care is always a difficult area because it takes money from the disability benefits paid to the most vulnerable people, who need support to live in their own homes. To ensure people are paying what they are supposed to be paying is critical.”

Enfield council has since sent letters to other residents it suspects have been affected by this issue, which could number as many as 200 people, according documents seen by the Guardian.

In 2014, local authorities gained the power to introduce charges to recoup costs they incur from contracting care and support services. These charges are typically deducted from the benefits of people receiving social care.

Councils who charge must conduct financial assessments to ensure that they do not cause a person’s income to drop below the statutory minimum set by the Department of Health (pdf), although they also have discretion to have more generous charging rules.

Many, though not all, councils now charge for adult social care. Among the factors considered when calculating a person’s minimum income guarantee is whether they are receiving a premium, such as the enhanced disability premium.

Those who, like the Sawhs, missed out on premiums because the DWP transferred them on to the wrong type of ESA, may have had a reduced minimum income guarantee. As a result, they may have been overcharged for care by their local authority.

While the DWP has compensated those who missed out on premiums – to the tune of £5,000 on average – there appears to have been no government effort to address this knock-on effect.

Marsha de Cordova, the Labour MP and disability rights campaigner, said: “This is a scandal. It is a responsibility of the DWP to ensure that all local authorities are compensating or refunding any ill or disabled persons affected.

“I would worry for the ill and disabled people that have fallen into debt, destitution or poverty because of this error by the DWP.”

Kamran Mallick, Disability Rights UK’s chief executive, said: “Now that the DWP have finally recognised the thousands of disabled people who have been underpaid ESA, we urge local authorities to refund the overpaid charges for social care that have been paid by many of these same disabled people.

“It’s monstrous that many of the poorest people in our society have faced a double whammy of not receiving their full entitlement and being hit by social care overcharging.”

A DWP spokesperson said: “We have worked hard to ensure that all those entitled to ESA receive the benefits they are entitled to.

“We urge anyone who believes their social care payments may have been affected by this issue to contact their local council.”

Figures released last month revealed that 5,000 people died before they could be reimbursed for the DWP’s ESA error.

Enfield council was contacted for comment.

https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/feb/15/disabled-and-ill-benefit-claimants-overcharged-for-care-due-to-dwp-error

I, Daniel Blake review – a battle cry for the dispossessed

Ken Loach crafts a Cathy Come Home for the 21st century, the raw anger of which resonates long after you leave the cinema.

Mark Kermode

Ken Loach’s latest Palme d’Or winner, his second after 2006’s The Wind that Shakes the Barley, packs a hefty punch, both personal and political. On one level, it is a polemical indictment of a faceless benefits bureaucracy that strips claimants of their humanity by reducing them to mere numbers – neoliberal 1984 meets uncaring, capitalist Catch-22. On another, it is a celebration of the decency and kinship of (extra)ordinary people who look out for each other when the state abandons its duty of care.

For all its raw anger at the impersonal mistreatment of a single mother and an ailing widower in depressed but resilient Newcastle, Paul Laverty’s brilliantly insightful script finds much that is moving (and often surprisingly funny) in the unbreakable social bonds of so-called “broken Britain”. Blessed with exceptional lead performances from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires, Loach crafts a gut-wrenching tragicomic drama (about “a monumental farce”) that blends the timeless humanity of the Dardenne brothers’ finest works with the contemporary urgency of Loach’s own 1966 masterpiece Cathy Come Home.

We open with the sound of 59-year-old Geordie joiner Daniel Blake (standup comic Johns) answering automaton-like questions from a “healthcare professional”. Having suffered a heart attack at work, Daniel has been instructed by doctors to rest. Yet since he is able to walk 50 metres and “raise either arm as if to put something in your top pocket”, he is deemed ineligible for employment and support allowance, scoring a meaningless 12 points rather than the requisite 15. Instead, he must apply for jobseeker’s allowance and perform the Sisyphean tasks of attending CV workshops and pounding the pavements in search of nonexistent jobs that he can’t take anyway.

Meanwhile, Squires’s mother-of-two Katie is similarly being given the runaround, rehoused hundreds of miles from her friends and family in London after spending two years in a hostel. “I’ll make this a home if it’s the last thing I do,” she tells Daniel, who takes her under his wing, fixing up her flat and impressed by her resolve to go “back to the books” with the Open University. Both are doing all they can to make the best of a bleak situation, retaining their hope and dignity in the face of insurmountable odds. Yet both are falling through the cracks of a cruel system that pushes those caught up in its cogs to breaking point.

“We’re digital by default” is the mantra of this impersonal new world, to which carpenter Daniel pointedly replies, “Yeah? Well I’m pencil by default.” Scenes of Blake struggling with a computer cursor (“fucking apt name for it!”) raise a wry chuckle, but there’s real outrage at the way this obligatory online form-filling has effectively written people like him out of existence. Yet still Daniel supports – and is supported by – those around him; from Kema Sikazwe’s street-smart China, a neighbour who is forging entrepreneurial links online (the internet may alienate Daniel, but it also unites young workers of the world), to Katie’s kids, Daisy and Dylan – the latter coaxed from habitual isolation (“no one listens to him so why should he listen to them?”) by the hands-on magic of woodwork. Having lost a wife who loved hearing Sailing By, the theme for Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast, and whose mind was “like the ocean”, Daniel carves beautiful fish mobiles that turn the kids’ rooms into an aquatic playground. Meanwhile, their mother is gradually going under.

A scene in a food bank in which the starving Katie, on the verge of collapse, finds herself grasping a meagre tin of beans is one of the most profoundly moving film sequences I have ever seen. Shot at a respectful distance by cinematographer Robbie Ryan, the scene displays both an exquisite empathy for Katie’s trembling plight and a pure rage that anyone should be reduced to such humiliation. Having seen I, Daniel Blake twice, I have both times been left a shivering wreck by this sequence, awash with tears, aghast with anger, overwhelmed by the sheer force of its all-but-silent scream.

“They’ll fuck you around,” China tells Daniel, “make it as miserable as possible – that’s the plan.” For Loach and Laverty, this is the dark heart of their drama, the use of what Loach calls the “intentional inefficiency of bureaucracy as a political weapon”, a way of intimidating people in a manner that is anything but accidental. “When you lose your self-respect you’re done for,” says Daniel, whose act of graffitied defiance becomes an “I’m Spartacus!” battle cry that resonates far beyond the confines of the movie theatre. Expect to see it spray-painted on the walls of a jobcentre near you soon.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/23/i-daniel-blake-ken-loach-review-mark-kermode