Benefit sanctions: where is the government's duty of care?

By Bernadette Meaden
February 11, 2019

The government has recently been quite vocal about the duty of care owed by social media companies to their users. And yet when it comes to some of the poorest and potentially most vulnerable people in the country, people the government can, and frequently does, make hungry and destitute at the stroke of a pen or the click of a mouse, it just doesn’t seem to take seriously the duty of care it has towards them.

Despite all the evidence, even some critics of the government continue to believe that where the impact of such policies is cruel, then it must be unforeseen, inadvertent, or a collection of administrative errors – it's not deliberate.

Today we have proof that great hardship and suffering is not being inadvertently caused, but deliberately inflicted, because given the evidence of suffering and the opportunity to change course, the government coldly refuses to relent.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee produced a report on benefit sanctions, in which it told the government that people were suffering “terrible and unnecessary hardship…left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel”.  

Clearly appalled by what it found, the Committee called on the government to relent. To "immediately" stop, for instance, imposing sanctions on people who are ill or disabled. The government said no.  

The Committee asked the government to ensure that if a care leaver under the age of 25 is sanctioned, they would lose no more than 20 per cent of their benefit. Think about it – a care leaver, with no family to turn to and perhaps a traumatic history of neglect or abuse behind them. The government said no. Our government insists on its right to make a care leaver destitute   because there is support to get into work, and, “Sanctions help motivate care leavers to engage with this support”.

The Committee made a “forceful recommendation – in the face of distressing evidence of the impact of sanctions on lone parents and their children – never to dock more than 20 per cent of a lone parent’s benefit”. Again, the government said no. You’re a child and your Mum’s bus is late, the government believes you should go cold and/or hungry.

So let us be in no doubt – the cruelty of the sanctions regime is knowing and deliberate, and the government pays no heed to the despair and suffering caused. I would challenge anyone to read the government’s response to this report and not find it chilling.

Committee Chair Frank Field, (who actually supported benefit sanctions for many years), said: “Our report laid bare the inhumanity of the Government’s sanctions regime, which it has pursued for years without ever stopping to check whether it works or what it is doing to the people it is meant to 'support'.

“In response, the Government has failed utterly to grasp the seriousness of the matter. It talks about reviews and 'proof of concept': it might want to take a look at the concept of not pushing disabled people and single parents – not to mention their children – into grinding poverty and hardship.”

Users of social media are viewed by the government as people who are owed a duty of care by private companies, but when it comes to benefit claimants, who are reliant on the government to survive, then it seems a duty of care just doesn’t apply.  


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden


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