Paul Morrison is the Methodist Church's public policy adviser. Here he describes his views on a report examining the impact the reformed benefits regime is having on vulnerable people.
Last year a Methodist minister told us the story of Mike who found himself in court for stealing £7.50 worth of food.
Mike had lost his job a few months earlier and had been stuck on a bus unexpectedly delayed by road works.
He was ten minutes late for his appointment at the Jobcentre and as a punishment he was sanctioned for four weeks – that means he lost all his income for a month.
Three weeks into the sanction he had nothing, he was ill, he missed the local foodbank’s weekly opening day and eventually he stole some food because he hadn’t eaten in four days.
In researching the sanctions system the saddest thing we have found is that Mike’s story is utterly commonplace and mundane.
Go to any foodbank, drop-in centre or Citizens Advice Bureau and you can hear stories that are often much worse.
Affecting the most vulnerable the most
What we see is that people with the most difficult lives are the ones who are most likely to receive a sanction.
Once you understand how the system works the reason for this becomes clear.
People are given an often large set of tasks to complete each week. If they don’t manage them all they are referred for a sanction.
Any system where people are punished for failing to jump through hoops time and time again is going to affect those who are the least able to jump.
The data we have published shows those with mental health problems are increasingly likely to be sanctioned, but the list of vulnerable groups is much larger: Homelesslink show that sanctions disproportionately affect homeless people.
Gingerbread show that sanctions disproportionately affect single parents.
Mind shows how badly affected those with long term health conditions can be - to name just three recent reports.
Harsh punishment for minor mistakes
When people hear stories like Mike’s they are tempted to believe that this must be a mistake and that it’s not how the system is intended to function.
However, looking closely we see that punishing minor mistakes extremely harshly is core to is core to the sanctions system.
This picture shows the first worked example in a training guide for the DWP staff who administer sanctions.
In it Audrey “got muddled with her dates” and - despite the fact this is the first time she has made such a mistake - she loses her benefit for a month.
If Audrey is able to prove that the sanction will stop her from eating she may qualify for a hardship payment.
However it is policy that however hungry Audrey proves she is, she will not be eligible for any payment for two weeks (unless she is a member of a specified vulnerable group).
Hardship payments are then normally paid two weeks in arrears. Audrey’s punishment for being “muddled with her dates” is likely to be four weeks of cold and hunger.
More and more people are being sanctioned – over one million received a sanction last year, some losing their benefits for a full three years.
Churches, foodbanks and others are increasingly called upon to support people thrown into abject poverty by such sanctions. Is this just?
A few questions for you
Next time you’re on a bus or a train on your way to work – ask yourself “if this is late should my next pay cheque be stopped?”.
Next time you need to go into to your child’s school at short notice - ask yourself “should this mean that I don’t get paid this month?”.
Next time you oversleep or forget an appointment - ask yourself “should I and my family go hungry for a few weeks just to teach me a lesson?”
If your answer to those questions is “yes” then you probably support the sanctions system.
If it’s “no” then it is time to question sanctions and how they are used against some of the poorest and most vulnerable citizens in our society.
These are the views of Paul Morrison, the Methodist Church's public policy adviser, and do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.