In the plethora of social security changes and cuts implemented in Northern Ireland as part of the so-called ‘Fresh Start’ Agreement, few have had such a brutalising impact as benefit sanctions – the withdrawal of social security entitlements for those who are deemed not to meet the conditions of the benefit they are claiming.

In June 2016, a UN human rights body, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights examined the UK’s human rights record and recommended that government should:

“Review the use of sanctions in relation to social security benefits and ensure that they are used proportionately and are subject to prompt and independent dispute resolution mechanisms;”

It also placed a requirement on the government to provide it with disaggregated data on the impact of social security reforms on vulnerable groups, including children. 

In May 2017, the Department for Communities wrote to PPR and the Right to Work: Right to Welfare group following their campaign action outside Andersonstown Jobs and Benefits Office, where they handed over a ‘Human Rights Checklist’ calling for due process and impact assessment before imposing sanctions. The Department for Communities letter states:

“we have not seen evidence of the ‘human rights failings within social security decision making processes’ to which you allude.”

And in many ways this is unsurprising.

If it is true that we measure what we value, then the disregard the Department for Communities and NI Executive has for those who are sanctioned is clear.

Under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act PPR received evidence showing that during the 7 months to 31 March 2017, 5,089 ESA claimants had their benefit disallowed following a face to face Work Capability Assessment interview. This amounts to just under 24 withdrawals in that time period of essential money for some of the most vulnerable people in our communities, each and every day.

PPR also received evidence under FOI showing that 6632 benefits sanctions were imposed on Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) claimants in Northern Ireland between 1 July 2016 and 31 March 2017. This too amounts to just over 24 removals of benefits every day.

The information received in relation to JSA sanctions is broken down only by region – Belfast Region, North region and South Region. This marks a change for the worse from the situation in 2015 when information on benefit withdrawals and sanctions was collected for each Jobs and Benefits Office in Belfast – which PPR obtained, again under Freedom of Information legislation.

Yet worse is to come. As the Department for Communities states in their FOI response:

“Once the centralisation of processing functions has been completed, regional breakdowns will no longer be available”

Further, the Department for Communities confirm that information in relation to the length of a sanction is not centrally recorded and so cannot be supplied. It is confirmed that:

                “a sanction may be imposed from one to 26 weeks”

The introduction of Universal Credit in Northern Ireland, scheduled for 25 Sept, will see the duration of JSA sanctions increase to a potential 78 weeks.

Yet no information on the impact of the sanctions is monitored.

It is clear that the data required for the NI Executive and Department for Communities to meet its human rights obligations is not being collected, and in fact efforts appear to be focused on collecting less information, not more.  The Department must reconsider this approach and commit to fully monitoring, impact assessing and publishing data on sanctions and benefit withdrawals as a matter of urgency.