We are pleased to welcome this post from Isla McLachlan, of Durham University.
The UK’s periodic examination by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) is underway. After years of austerity there is a plethora of damaging policies for the Committee to interrogate.
One of the most pernicious – and often unseen – policies that the CESCR will have before it is the ‘benefit sanctions’ system. A ‘benefit sanction’ is the cessation of an employment related social security payment when claimants do not meet conditions placed upon them. Given that claimants are often vulnerable and in challenging situations and conditions have become increasingly stringent, the current sanctions system is almost certainly in violation of obligations under the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights.
Over the past year, Law students from worked with, a charity in Stockton on Tees, to put together an assessment on the impact of these sanctions in the North East of England. The that was produced found that the UK is not measuring up to ICESCR standards well.
Right to Social Security
On the Right to Social Security, it was found that the UK is in violation by failing to progressively realise the right at an appropriate rate, and in fact has imposed retrogressive measures. This is evidenced, for example, by the number of those with a mental health condition who were subject to a sanction rising from 35% in 2009 to 58% in 2013. There has also been a decrease in number of individuals who can seek redress has because of narrow mechanisms of redress and drastic cuts to legal aid.
Beyond these sometimes difficult to demonstrate obligations, the UK has additionally failed to ‘ensure that the social security system will be adequate, accessible for everyone and will cover social risks and contingencies’ (General Comment 19). Most vulnerable claimants are unable to access much of the support that is available. Many are required to visit a Job Centre and ‘sign on’ in inaccessible location, which causes them to miss appointments and be sanctioned.
The UK is required by the CESCR to:
‘provide appropriate education and public awareness concerning access to social security schemes, particularly in rural and deprived urban areas, or amongst linguistic and other minorities’.
However, in the current system most claims must be completed through an online form, causing difficulties for claimants who struggle with literacy or do not have access to the Internet. This, in turn, causes a lack of awareness of appeal procedures and of hardship funds. Even when individuals do appeal, they may often have to go without basic unemployment payments in the interim.
Further, sanctions reduce claimants’ ability to pay priority bills and buy food, and may impact claimants’ eligibility for housing benefits or council tax rebate. As a result, claimants’ living standards are reduced. Increased feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression are common.
Consider these hardships against the fact that around 40% of benefit sanctions decisions last year were overturned. The stark figure suggests that sanctions were often unjustly applied. In human rights terms, the State is giving insufficient priority to its obligation to provide even the minimum essential level of social security to enable people to acquire essential housing, healthcare and food.
Benefit Sanctions have been shown to affect the vulnerable in an indirectly discriminatory way. 58% of sanctioned Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) claimants are vulnerable people with a mental health condition or learning difficulty. This represents a 668% increase in benefit sanctions against people with mental health difficulty on ESA over the last four years.
In addition, a lack of flexibility in the system means that the differing needs of vulnerable people are not being recognised. Vulnerable individuals are not given proper support to communicate their requirements and concerns during Job Centre meetings. As a result, individuals are unable to negotiate a fair Claimant Commitment (the ‘contract’ to which they are later bound) on realistic terms.
Furthermore, individuals are often unable to receive the most appropriate advice and left unaware of what support or adjustments are available. Within the system, Disability Employment Advisors help with ‘work preparation, recruitment, interview coaching and confidence building’. However, the onus is on claimants to disclose their disability to their work coach and ask about the process and the next steps. As many claimants have an uncomfortable relationship with the JobCentre, this disclosure often doesn’t take place. As a result, claimants are frequently not referred to, or are unaware of, Disability Employment Advisors.
Right to Work
Another area where the CESCR might call into question the UK’s performance is in relation to the right to work. Aspects of the right to work, including providing ‘technical and vocational guidance and training programmes,’ have arguably not been complied with.
Thrive Teesside told us very clearly that the sanctions scheme and a lack of training meant that individuals were being pushed (or shoved) towards the labour market. This approach is not having positive results, as individuals are being put in the workplace without having the necessarily skills and capabilities. This puts individuals in an unfair position and ends in a damaging experience. It works against some vulnerable groups whose difficulties and skills may not be properly articulated and understood.
Although there are some opportunities for training, apprentice schemes pay well below the minimum wage and aren’t always available. The ‘Work Choice’ scheme is tailored to suit the needs of each individual disabled person and provides specialised support to find employment and to keep employment once a job has been found and started. However, underfunding means that very few people will be able to get a place on the scheme, with only 13,000 places available each year.As a result, claimants continue to be reliant on the Job Seekers Allowance system and are more likely to face sanctions.
There are multiple ways in which the UK, as a State party to the ICESCR, has not designed this aspect of social security policy in a human rights compliant manner. The benefit sanctions scheme is causing real hardship for vulnerable individuals in the area of the North East of England that we examined. As the CESCR carries out its examination of the UK it will be interesting to see how far it goes in finding violations of the Covenant.
You can read the full report and follow the UK’s examination on twitter at #CESCR and #ICESCRUK16