From the TUC

Worrying increase in sanctions against the sick and disabled

18 May 2016, by in Society & Welfare

Today’s figures revealed that sanctions against Employment and Support (ESA) claimants increased in December to 1,708. This was up by 451 on the previous month.

ESA is the out-of-work benefit for people whose illness, health condition or disability makes it difficult or impossible to work.

To qualify for ESA, the sick and disabled have to undergo a Work Capability Assessment. This is an invasive, inaccurate and fundamentally flawed medical assessment, which is supposed to determine how someone’s sickness or disability affects their ability to work (see this guest blog). Following the test, people are declared fit for work (sometimes with tragic consequences), entitled to unconditional assistance (i.e. are placed in the Support Group) or capable of work-related activity (and placed in the Work Related Activity Group).

Those in the WRAG have to attend interviews at the Jobcentre and can be mandated to undertake work-related activity (such as participating in training). Although these people have been medically assessed as presently unable to work, if they fail to attend Jobcentre Plus interviews or participate in “work related activity” they are vulnerable to sanctions.

Although sanctions should not be applied where people have “good reason”, there are countless examples of where sanctions have been applied in a way that is cruel, arbitrary and ridiculous.

Considering today’s figures, it is welcome that the number of sanctions applied to ESA claimants is well below the record levels seen in 2010 and 2014. However, this recent increase is concerning. The last time ESA sanctions increased so substantially in a month was in March 2014, just before sanctions skyrocketed. We must be vigilant against history repeating itself.

Number of adverse sanction decisions against ESA claimants (monthly):

Number of adverse sanction decisions against ESA claimants

The TUC believes that benefit sanctions are unfair and hurt innocent, vulnerable people. However, there is a particular problem when it comes to sanctioning those who are sick and disabled.

Sick and disabled people face additional barriers compared with other people who are out-of-work. These might include:

  • Discriminatory or unsupportive behaviour from employers or colleagues.
  • Difficulties in travelling to work.
  • Rigidity in the workplace, for example making it harder for people to work flexibly or on a reduced hours basis.
  • Workplaces which are not properly set up to accommodate the needs of sick and disabled employees.

No wonder our analysis,  released today, shows that the employment rate for disabled people is still below 50 per cent.

This report shows that the government is “years behind schedule” in delivering its manifesto commitment to halve the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people by 2020.

And does the punitive sanctioning of disabled claimants take this into account?

As this TUC blog explained:

“The government approach is rooted in the model which sees disabled people themselves as a problem to be fixed: the individual disabled person is either a hero for overcoming their own deficiency (like a paralympic champion), or else a “burden” on society (in popular and tabloid language, a benefit scrounger)”

“At the same time as taking away the support, the government blames disabled people for their exclusion. Employer prejudice, stigma, ignorance, lack of transport, lack of access: what barriers? All they have to do to get a job is try a bit harder!”

It is when we look through the lens of the social model, which sees disabled people as equal citizens whose inclusion is blocked by social barriers, that we understand how truly unjust sanctions against ESA claimants are.

The research group Welfare Conditionality’s latest findings found that sanctions not only caused financial hardship for disabled people, but have negatively impacted both their physical and mental health. They concluded:

“Anxiety and hardship appear to have been the only palpable outcomes [of sanctions]”

It is for these reasons that the latest increase in sanctions against ESA claimants is so concerning, and why we must hope that it is not indicative of further increases to come.

One Response to Worrying increase in sanctions against the sick and disabled

  1. Kenneth Toulson
    May 19th 2016, 8:42 am

    Nothing will ever change until the TUC and the trade union leadership stop sitting on their hands, make their actions match their rhetoric, prove their mettle and fight back meaningfully. I despair.