Churches call government welfare sanctions 'inhumane and un-Christian'

Report by religious leaders says Department of Work and Pensions targets vulnerable families in order to make cuts under guise of regulations

A group of churches has called for an urgent overhaul of the government’s benefits sanctions regime, describing it as punitive, inhumane and un-Christian.

The churches say the sanctions regime deliberately causes harm to claimants, and suggest that it is aimed more at cutting welfare payments rather than helping people back into work.

More than 1 million unemployed claimants were subjected to sanctions last year – a punishment whereby benefit payments are stopped for between four weeks and three years for apparent breaches of benefit rules.

The churches warn that that the problems could be exacerbated under the government’s proposed new welfare system, universal credit, which will extend the sanctions regime to low-paid working families who are in receipt of benefits.

A report by the churches, to be published on Monday, says: “We have concluded it is very hard to justify a system which impacts most harshly on the people who most need help and support … It is incumbent on the Christian community to speak out against any system which treats people so unjustly.”

The archbishop of Wales, Barry Morgan, said: “The findings of this report are disturbing. It exposes a system that is harsh in the extreme, penalising the most vulnerable of claimants by the withdrawal of benefits for weeks at a time.”

Niall Cooper, director of Church Action on Poverty, said: “Most people in this country would be shocked if they knew that far from providing a safety net, the benefit sanctions policy is currently making thousands of people destitute. This policy must be reviewed urgently.”

The report will further provoke the work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, who last month criticised the churches for attacking coalition policies.

It is published by the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist church, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, and the United Reformed church, as well the charity Church Action on Poverty. It calls for a review of the system and an immediate suspension of sanctions on claimants who are mentally ill or have dependent children.

It says that while the churches accept that all social-security systems must have a measure of conditionality, the punishments imposed by the government regime are disproportionately harsh.

The report cites a series of case studies showing sanctions were imposed on vulnerable claimants for trivial breaches of the rules, such as missing appointments. The effects on claimants have included stress, depression, hunger and in some cases suicide. It says the regime – which it describes as “one of the most severe in the developed world” often forces sanctioned claimants to become reliant on food banks to survive.

Although a Department for Work and Pensions hardship fund exists to help the most vulnerable the report says this is difficult to access. A separate investigation by Channel4’s Dispatches, to be transmitted on Monday night, highlights claims from jobcentre officials who say that they were put under pressure by managers to sanction claimants.

Ex-jobcentre advisor Alan Davies told Dispatches he felt the sanctions regime he was forced to impose on claimants was ethically and morally wrong. “The pressure was enormous. I just felt that what they were asking me to do was totally wrong. They were asking me to hammer people who were in their own way doing the best that they can to get a job.”

The findings echo evidence presented to a House of Commons select committee hearings into benefit sanctions in January and February. This is expected to report before May.

A DWP spokesman said: “The truth is that every day Jobcentre Plus advisers work hard to help claimants into work – unemployment is falling and a record number of people are in work. Sanctions are only used as a last resort for the tiny minority who fail to take up the support which is on offer. ”

The DWP added that claimants who are sanctioned and have children receive hardship payments right away.


Patrick Butler, social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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