Glenda came to Stepping Stones when her ESA stopped unexpectedly. She struggles to understand official correspondence and needed help working out what had happened, and what she needed to do next. Her Housing Benefit had stopped as well, but again she was not aware of why this had happened. She had started building up rent arrears and was getting very concerned about a possible eviction.
We went through her correspondence, and it transpired that her ESA had been sanctioned. Glenda is in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), meaning that her entitlement is dependent on her attending work-focussed training aimed at improving work prospects once a person’s health improves. She had missed three of these appointments, and so her ESA had been sanctioned indefinitely until she re-attended the Work Programme. She was awarded ESA due to numerous serious health problems, all of which present variable symptoms. Some days she is in too much pain to get out of bed, and other days she can just about function normally. In May last year, she suffered a prolonged flare up and her GP referred her to a specialist. She was too ill to attend the Work Programme, so her GP signed a sick note which she sent to the Jobcentre and the Work Programme provider. She was sanctioned for missing three appointments after she had circulated this sick note, despite leaving voicemails for her work coach.
I lodged three appeals for the three missed appointments, and asked that the court link them into a single hearing. This request was granted, and the appeals were accepted and processed for a full hearing. There were delays, and a hearing was only listed in January despite the appeals being lodged in August. The judge issued a Direction Notice requiring the DWP to send a representative to the hearing.
Appellants have various legal arguments available to them when challenging a sanction, such as they had good cause to miss an appointment and took reasonable steps to alert the DWP, or that the type of work related activity that they were mandated to do was unreasonable. In Glenda’s case, both of these applied. The documents provided by the DWP in advance of the hearing showed that Glenda had been expected to cold call employers and send off at least 15 speculative job applications during her WRA session. Regulation 3(4) of the Employment and Support Allowance (Work-Related Activity) Regulations 2011 prohibits ESA claimants from being made to apply for jobs.
I drafted some written submissions explaining her health situation, the steps she had taken to make the DWP aware of them, and the illegality of the activities she had missed. All three appeals were allowed and we are now waiting for the DWP to authorise a payment of around £500 to cover the period she was sanctioned for.
Sanction cases rarely come to our attention at Z2K, despite the practice being widespread and a major reason why people are forced to attend foodbanks. As a policy issue, we feel it is one of the most pernicious aspects of the benefits system and the sanctions regime is something we have wanted to challenge in the courts for a long time.
However, the vast majority of sanctions cases never come to our caseworkers, despite our best efforts to seek them out. We are not entirely sure why this is, but one explanation is that people simply are not aware that sanction decisions can be challenged in the same way as any other benefit decision – that is by Mandatory Reconsideration and an appeal to the Social Security Tribunal. Another explanation could be that as their effect is generally temporary, people would rather grin and bear it until their payments start up again. Many people, with some justification, feel that the benefits system is hostile to claimants, and I worry that they would rather not rock the boat by challenging a sanction.
If Glenda’s case shows anything, it is that sanctions can and should be challenged.