Today another crucial report has been added to the increasingly irrefutable weight of evidence demonstrating the distressing consequences of punitive sanctioning on vulnerable people across the UK. It follows the Trussell Trust's report 'Emergency Use Only' written with Oxfam, CPAG and the Church of England, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty report 'Feeding Britain'.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee's sanctions report points to problems with the sanctions regime that cause hardship and hunger, something Trussell Trust foodbanks see at the sharp end every day. It highlights that there is a concerning lack of transparency and openness on sanctioning, and on the entitlements of those claiming benefits.
Many charities have been making representations to the Department of Work and Pensions on the true impact of the current 'stringency' of benefit conditionality. The Select Committee report makes important recommendations that reiterate what's been said before, like increasing flexibility in the system, and ensuring that people are aware of hardship payments and STBAs. We welcome the report and all its recommendations. We also agree with the Committee that a full independent investigation is both necessary and urgent.
It seems to me, and others who gave evidence to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, that a system in which claimants are 'presumed guilty' unless they prove otherwise goes against 'natural, or administrative, justice'. This is a reflection of the destructive narrative that has built up around benefit claimants. This narrative too often demonises and penalises people who, through life circumstances, find themselves in emergency situations and struggle to find their way around a Kafkaesque system where they have, in the words of the Select Committee, been "set up to fail".
Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie said in April 2014 that "foodbanks are providing a model of how the state should, ideally, interact with individuals...Instead of the intimidating monolith of a government department, the foodbank offers a live human being to help diagnose and then navigate another's problem. This is far more effective than the impersonal gateway into the welfare system..."
We see in this report that punitive sanctioning can drive people to hunger, eviction, family breakup and suicide. In the words of another evidence provider, Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, from the University of Durham, when people in vulnerable situations are sanctioned, their "problems are aggravated further" with on-going effects on people's physical and mental health. That's why any investigation must look at the true impact of sanctioning, and whether it is helping or hindering people who are trying to get back on their feet. The Select Committee is entirely right to call for a series of evaluations on the efficacy and impacts of the new sanctions regime introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012.
Let Emily* a young mother in a foodbank post-Christmas tell her story. She was sanctioned when it was reported, wrongly, that her partner had moved in with her and her children. She received no letter to tell her of the sanction and, to date, has still not received correspondence. She only found out she had been sanctioned when she checked her bank balance. She, and her two children under 10, had no money over Christmas and survived only by relying on the kindness of neighbours and the Trussell Trust foodbank. She was overcome by the welcome she received at the foodbank, no judgement, no faceless bureaucracy but smiles, support and constructive engagement. She plans to return to the foodbank as a volunteer as soon as childcare responsibilities allow.
That is the nature of what Trussell Trust foodbanks do, provide hope when there appears to be none.
The frustration I feel is that this is the umpteenth report published on this subject. The two reports mentioned above, the Oakley report, numerous pieces of research from UK charities reinforcing the evidence provided to this House of Commons Select Committee followed by debates, questions and, most importantly, the real life stories of real live people. Our welfare system must not pander to the myth of the undeserving poor and ignore the real need of those in crisis in the UK. And it must base its approach on robust evidence about what works and what in practice doesn't.
It is too late now for this government to implement the findings of this Committee but The Trussell Trust's hope is that the incoming government will take its conclusions seriously, and act in favour of mums like Emily, for whom a punitive sanction was "like having the rug pulled from under your feet."
Chris Mould is the chairman of the Trussell Trust