On the eve of Halloween, the Right to Work: Right to Welfare group issued ‘sanctions’ to two major providers of government Social Security Services, for breaches of human rights standards.

The Right to Work: Right to Welfare (R2W) Group, with the support of the Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR) have been surveying people affected by the issue across Belfast. The action came after the group received the latest figures under the Freedom of Information Act showing that decision makers stopped or reduced benefit entitlement 21,386 times since October 2014.

(To read more about sanctions see our Campaign Issue in Focus Sanction special)

Ingeus is the lead contractor in Belfast involved in sanctioning Job Seekers on the ‘Steps 2 Success’ government back to work scheme. Across the street, Royston House is a Social Security centre where ‘work capability’ assessments have declared thousands of sick and disabled people fit for work. Both were sanctioned and given a one month timeframe to appeal the charges. The Minister for Employment and Learning, Stephen Farry and Social Development Minister, Mervyn Storey also received their copies of the human rights sanctions.

With regards to the practices of these agencies, the letter points to clear international standards which are being violated. The letter states;

"These are clear abuses of people’s internationally recognised human rights to social security and due process:

“Qualifying conditions for benefits must be reasonable, proportionate and transparent. The withdrawal, reduction or suspension of benefits should be circumscribed, based on grounds that are reasonable, subject to due process, and provided for in national law.”

Committee on the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment #19 Para 24

Furthermore, because taking benefits off someone is such a drastic measure, it should only be done if the following guidelines have been followed;

(a) An opportunity for genuine consultation with those affected;

(b) Timely and full disclosure of information on the proposed measures;

(c) Reasonable notice of proposed actions;

(d) Legal recourse and remedies for those affected; and

(e) Legal assistance for obtaining legal remedies.

And there is a minimum standard below which social security payments should never fall:

“Under no circumstances should an individual be deprived of a benefit on discriminatory grounds or of the minimum essential level of benefits as defined in paragraph 59(a).”

Committee on the International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment #19 note 78

View a copy of the letter issued to decision makers here

Bertie Atkinson, from the R2W group, is a 63 year old Belfast man with a heart condition who was removed from Employment Support Allowance. Speaking before the action he said;

“There is a basic human right to the minimum level to survive on. But we know that Jobseekers are being sanctioned for being 15 minutes early to an appointment or attending family funerals. We know that people who are too sick to work are being told they have to find a job because decision makers don’t look at the medical evidence properly. It is driving people into poverty and on to the breadline and has to stop. Today we are sanctioning the decision makers.”

Surveys carried out by the Right to Work: Right to Welfare group at Social Security offices in Belfast since 2013 show a steady rise in sanctions. The latest, carried out this summer surveyed over 300 people and found that 59% had been sanctioned or their entitlement to social security was removed – a marked increase on 39% in 2013 and 50% in 2014. Survey participants stated that as a result they had been forced to borrow money, use food banks, skip meals, go without heating and apply for crisis loans.

Seán Brady, Local Development Worker with PPR said;

“In effect these decisions represent a financial disinvestment from some of Belfast’s poorest families. Thousands of people have had not just some but all of their Social Security money removed without even the most basic rights and protections to defend themselves. Local political parties have been so focussed on the debate around Welfare Reform they have missed that it’s already here. There has been no political scrutiny of what is happening to their most vulnerable constituents, right under their noses every day.”