We have a monthly column in the Law Society Messenger. You can see the full June edition here.
This month, GMLC volunteer Edmund Potts analyses the recent announcement that the maximum benefit sanction period is to be cut from three years to six months.
Edmund volunteered as a tribunal advocate with our scheme for Manchester Law School students. Edmund was called to the bar in 2018 and is currently an intern with the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
It was recently reported in the Financial Times that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Amber Rudd is to cut the maximum benefit sanction period from three years to a mere six months. Sanctions mean a reduction or even stoppage of benefits if the jobcentre believes a claimant has failed to show up for appointments or look for work with the required dedication. Additional hardship is often caused by a knock-on cessation of housing benefit until the claimant can provide evidence of their newly straitened circumstances to the local authority.
The new limit to sanctions will come as cold comfort to the families of thousands of people who have already suffered life-changing and even life-threatening consequences in recent years after being denied benefits. But although even meagre reforms are to be welcomed, true change for the better will continue to elude us unless the government finally faces up to the inhumanity at the heart of our benefits system.
When I volunteered as a tribunal advocate for Employment and Support Allowance claimants represented by Greater Manchester Law Centre, I saw first-hand how the DWP takes decisions with effective impunity. Even though a staggering two-thirds of social security appeals are decided in favour of the claimant, as few as ten percent of decisions are ever taken to appeal. The system operates on the assumption that a great silent majority will be too demoralised, too ill, or too lacking in support to bring an appeal. I have seen judges’ jaws hit the floor when my clients arrived at the Civil Justice Centre barely well enough to answer questions, let alone look for work.
Practitioners in criminal law will know that before imposing a fine on a convicted criminal, the state must have regard to their financial means and ability to pay. In contrast, when the Department for Work and Pensions decides to impose financial sanctions, there is no requirement at all that they consider the impact this will have on a claimant’s ability to eat, heat their home, or keep vital medication refrigerated. If the Human Rights Act does indeed become a target for reform once the dust of Brexit has settled, rather than losing cherished rights we could instead consider giving legal force to new rights – such as Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a person’s right to “a standard of living adequate for their health and well-being”, and the right to “security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond their control”.
While representing some of the most vulnerable people in society is both a useful service and a rewarding experience for volunteers like myself, it is important that the state is not allowed to wash its hands of those it has so badly let down. No matter how talented and dedicated the Law Centre’s staff are, financial constraints will always limit its ability to help some of those in need. That is why it is so important that the Law Centre receives your support not only as a vital service today and tomorrow for those who walk through its doors, but also as a long-term campaigning organisation fighting for real change.
The current policy of social misery driven by austerity could never have been so devastatingly effective if it had not been accompanied by a parallel assault on access to justice, in particular legal aid.Indeed, it is hard not to see the cuts to legal aid for areas of law like social welfare law as a canary in a coal mine, a grim omen for the direction our entire justice system isheading in. After all, if the government have so far been so successful in denying justice to benefits claimants, it would not be such a stretch to try the same with those caught up in the criminal justice system, where mental health problems, illiteracy, and other vulnerabilities are endemic.
Happily, there is a rational solution to all this: restoring legal aid for social welfare law and abolishing the work capability assessment and punitive sanctions regime would of course benefit claimants, but it would also help give rise to a new generation of social welfare lawyers able and willing to help people enforce their rights. Even the taxpayer would see savings, no longer obliged to fund costly but mostly pointless first-tier tribunal hearings, and increased demand on mental health services for those made ill by the stress of sanctions. This sort of sweeping but common-sense change would benefit us all far more than simply tinkering with arbitrary and punitive sanctioning powers which are long overdue for repeal.
At GMLC, we fight for a supportive social security system. See our manifesto here.