The government’s cruel rhetoric is that with enough ‘tough love’, people too ill to get out of bed can hold down a job. Sanctions don’t work
our years ago, I wrote about the death of David Clapson. Clapson – a former soldier and carer for his mum – had his benefits sanctioned after missing one meeting at the jobcentre. He was diabetic, and without the £71.70 a week from his jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) he couldn’t afford to eat or put credit on his electricity card to keep the fridge working where he stored his insulin. Three weeks later, after suffering a severe lack of insulin, Clapson was found dead with a pile of CVs next to his body.
I found myself thinking of Clapson this weekend when I read the findings of a groundbreaking study into the treatment of unemployed disabled claimants in Britain. The four-year study by academic Ben Baumberg Geiger in collaboration with the Demos thinktank shows that since 2010, disabled people receiving state benefits have been hit with a staggering 1m sanctions.
The vast majority – more than 900,000 claimants – were on the standard unemployment benefit, JSA; disabled people who have been (often incorrectly) found “fit for work” and forced to meet jobcentre requirements such as attending meetings despite being, say, in pain with severe arthritis or fatigued from multiple sclerosis. The other sanctions – 110,000 of them since 2010 – were on the disability benefit employment and support allowance (work-related activity group), people who by the government’s own definition are so ill or disabled they aren’t able to work.
These findings not only provide evidence of the scale of the sanctions scandal – or indeed, the cruelty of it – but of outright discrimination: disabled people are up to 53% more likely to be docked money than claimants who are not disabled. This is nothing less than the systematic punishment of the disabled and sick – where the state sees a wheelchair user struggling to find work and responds by stopping the money they need in order to eat.
This punishment stretches far wider than the sanction system. Since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition took power in 2010, there has been an unprecedented assault on the support disabled people rely on. Premised on the idea that paraplegics and cancer patients were draining the “bloated benefit bill”, disabled people became a key target for cuts – ranging from removing their benefits entirely to cutting the social care they need to get to the toilet and leave the house. It was only last week that the work and pensions select committee released a report describing the “untenable human costs” of the disability benefit system.
But the sanction regime – first introduced by New Labour and vastly accelerated by the Conservatives in 2012 – is arguably the most pernicious aspect of this agenda. As ministers began to talk of disabled people “languishing on benefits”, sanctioning claimants battling illness and disability became normalised. In one year (between 2013 and 2014), sanctions against chronically ill and disabled people rose by 580%. The British public, buoyed by the rhetoric of politicians and the rightwing media, have broadly accepted this: while polling from the Demos report showed little support for sanctions for minor infractions, the majority supported removing disabled people’s benefits in some circumstances.
The ease with which these sanctions have developed in recent years speaks to longstanding myths and dehumanisation of disabled people: that this “othered” group are a burden on society and by extension, the taxpayer. And that with enough “tough love” – say removing their income for a month – people too ill to get out of bed can somehow hold down a job.
The deaths of people such as David Clapson offer devastating insights into where this culture is taking us. Four years on, there appears no end in sight. The high number of sanctions being handed out to those transferred to the new universal credit system suggests that far from learning from its failings, the government is set on repeating them.
At this point, no one can claim ignorance. A report by the National Audit Office in 2016 found that there was no evidence that sanctions work or that the system is saving the taxpayer money. And in some ways, this makes it worse. When a sanction system has no tangible use, it’s simply hurting disabled claimants for the sake of it. This is Britain’s “safety net”: one that persecutes sick and disabled people.
• Frances Ryan is a Guardian columnist