Sanctions are already happening....

According to the government website ‘NI Direct’  social security sanctions (which are punitive measures taken by government officials to stop or limit the amount of social security money people receive), are not impacting people in Northern Ireland yet. Indeed when outlining the potential reasons why people may be subjected to sanctions it says clearly:

“To date, this has not been introduced in Northern Ireland. This information is provided for information purposes only.”

This is a common misperception among the wider public who do not experience the social security system on a daily basis but are clued in to the wider political debate around so called ‘welfare reform’. But whilst the public focus is distracted by the debate around the impending ‘Welfare Reform’ sanctions and the subsequent party political crisis, official government statistics confirm what people have been telling the Right to Work: Right to Welfare (R2W) campaign on dole queues across Belfast for the past year: sanctions are being implemented without delay.

Information received under Freedom of Information legislation in June 2015 reveals an alarmingly high incidence of unemployed people’s benefits being stopped or curtailed as a result of sanctions in Northern Ireland. PPR's request related to information regarding the total number of recorded Employment Support Allowance (ESA) and Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) sanctions broken down by Social Security Office in the last year.

The results, which give the total number of JSA sanctions (here) and ESA sanctions (here) and (here) or 'adverse decsions' are staggering. In total, the information PPR received identified that social security money was denied 19,388 times to people on ESA and  JSA last year. 

The information, confirms the findings of the R2W campaign which has surveyed people attending dole offices in Belfast for over two years. Their research found that over 50% of people had their benefits stopped in 2014 as a result of a sanction or a change in entitlement.

According to this information, in the period April 2014 - April 2015, 5779 sanctions were imposed on people in receipt of Jobseekers Allowance in Northern Ireland. The top ten highest numbers of sanctions by Social Security Office for this period include:

  1. Corporation Street (457)
  2. Shaftsbury Square (434)
  3. Newtownabbey (404)
  4. Lisburn (335)
  5. Holywood Road (294)
  6. Ballymena (256)
  7. Bangor (241)
  8. Foyle (220)
  9. Shankill (216)
  10. Coleraine (197)
Disproportionate impact...

These figures, read in the context of the total numbers of people claiming Jobseekers Allowance at these offices, also reveal that ‘the rate’ of sanctions differ between Social Security Offices. So whilst the number of recorded sanctions at Corporation Street and Shaftsbury Square are similar, there is a significant difference between the numbers of people actually claiming Jobseekers Allowance at these offices with 3,500 jobseekers at Corporation Street and only 650 at Shaftsbury Square. Whilst the Department for Social Development figures do not identify ‘sanction rates’ a crude estimate would indicate a significantly disproportionately higher rate of sanctions at Shaftsbury Square (~67%) compared to Corporation Street (~ 13%).

PPR also received information in the same Freedom of Information response regarding sanctions or ‘adverse decisions’ relating to people accessing Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). Whilst the Department for Social Development’s records indicate that in the same period 13, 609 ‘adverse decisions’ were made to remove people’s entitlement to ESA, no breakdown by Social Security Office is given.

‘The tip of the iceberg’...

These statistics only cover JSA sanctions and ESA adverse decisions. R2W Monitoring is evidencing further decisions being made at Social Security Offices which remove people’s access to other social security benefits such as Disability Living Allowance/Personal Independence Payment.  

Their monitoring is also showing that the impact of these ‘sanctions’ or ‘adverse decisions’ are leaving people destitute, driving many to food banks for example. The link between sanctions and food bank use is well evidenced with the The Trussell Trust, noting in their 2014 report that 49% of people referred to food backs are there due to problems with social security payments. Additionally, the use of sanctions as a punitive measure intended to push people to access employment has also been called into question by academics at Oxford University following a cross area analysis of the UK. This study, led by Professor David Stuckler, identified that whilst the use of sanctions had led to a fall in the numbers of people accessing social security payment, it had not resulted in more people returning to employment.

A “minimum essential level”...

Under International Human Rights Law, the right to social security is intrinsically linked with other rights such as the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to health. Access to a minimum level of social security therefore, is essential. The CESCR Committee notes:

“Under no circumstances should an individual be deprived of a benefit on discriminatory grounds or of the minimum essential level of benefits”: 

United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights General Comment 19, paragraph 59(a)

The R2W Group are therefore campaigning to challenge the use of sanctions. The group have been at Belfast dole offices in recent months sharing information on how to effectively challenge and overturn these arbitrary decisions which leave people destitute. Keep up to date with their campaign on Twitter or check the webpage for updates.