The most difficult phone call Brett Sparkes says he has taken was to convince a woman not to commit suicide after she was told her benefit payments were at risk.

The union community coordinator for Unite, the UK's largest trade union, said the woman - who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, underwent a mastectomy, and was receiving chemotherapy - was told by government employment advisers she was fit enough to work and would lose her payments if she did not do more to find a job.

Based in the UK's southwest, Sparkes works with those at risk of having their payments, typically worth $90 to $175 a week, suspended for failing to convince authorities they are actively trying to secure employment. 

With the UK general elections fast approaching, benefit sanctions have become more of an issue in the British media. There have been 100 news headlines on the issue in March, higher than any previous month during the current government's rule, according to Google Analytics.

The UK government denies JobCentres have sanction targets to meet [Getty]

More than 900,000 sanctions were issued between March 2013 and March 2014, according to preliminary data released by the UK's Department of Work and Pensions, an increase from 477,000 in 2011, the year before stricter welfare laws were brought in by the country's Conservative-led coalition government.

The department runs offices known as JobCentres that are aimed at helping people find employment. It says penalties are only used as a last resort, and is necessary to help people get back to work.

Sparkes, however, says officials often issue sanctions unfairly.

"They're very arbitrary… One of our members was sanctioned when she arrived late for an appointment at the JobCentre, when the reason for her being late was that her father had died," Sparkes told Al Jazeera.


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Sparkes says he does not blame staff at JobCentres for the rise in sanctions issued, he blames directives from the government to meet targets.

"They're under a lot of strain … they're making decisions they wouldn't normally make if they weren't under pressure," he said.

The government strongly denies such targets exist, but Al Jazeera spoke to one former JobCentre employee who said otherwise.

Angela Neville, who left her role as an employment adviser in 2013, said after the Conservative-led coalition government took charge in 2010, managers at JobCentres actively encouraged staff to look for opportunities to suspend or cancel benefit claims. 

Rather than supporting these customers into work or training, I spent my time trying to find resourceful ways of meeting targets.

Angela Neville, former JobCentre adviser

"Pressure on staff to achieve targets was intense… Rather than supporting these customers into work or training, I spent my time trying to find resourceful ways of meeting targets," she said.

Neville, who has since written a play based on her experiences as a JobCentre worker, said on one occasion a manager asked her to call a man undergoing major surgery to attend an appointment, or risk losing his payments.

The man only avoided sanctions after she refused to comply with the request and convinced another manager to intervene.

"I was brought up to support and respect vulnerable people, not try to exploit their condition," Neville said of her experiences.

A spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions told Al Jazeera no targets to apply sanctions exist, and only a small minority of those claiming employment-related benefits have had welfare payments withdrawn - and only after they refused to take help on offer.

"JobCentre advisers make it very clear to people when they first claim benefits what is expected of them, and what the consequences are if they don't play by the rules," the spokesperson said anonymously as is official UK policy, adding the benefit sanctions had existed under successive governments.

Despite the government's stated aim of using sanctions as a way of encouraging people back to work, David Webster, an academic in urban studies at the University of Glasgow, said there was "no doubt" a major reason for the stricter sanctions policy was to reduce the welfare bill.

Webster, who gave witness testimony to a parliamentary inquiry on the adverse effects of such sanctions, suggested two ways in which the government saved money by withdrawing benefits; direct savings by not paying the sums, and by deterring others from claiming in the first place.

"I think that the two effects together will now be saving the government the best part of 1bn pounds [$1.5bn] per year… Of this, an estimated 330m pounds ($500m) per year or so is the direct loss to claimants of sanctions, and the rest is the effect of preventing claims," Webster told Al Jazeera.

Researchers at the University of Oxford have also found little evidence to show sanctions help the unemployed back in to work. A study carried out by the university showed 43 percent of the 1.9 million people sanctioned between June 2011 and March 2014 had stopped claiming benefits, but fewer than 20 percent had done so because they had found employment.

Long-term consequences

Webster said it was difficult to quantify the effect sanctions were having, but depriving so many people of financial support would be devastating. "The long-term consequences in terms of death, illness and destruction of quality of life must be enormous," he said.

The Department of Work and Pensions has already investigated the deaths of 49 benefit claimants whose suicides have been linked to its activities, according to details published by a parliamentary inquiry on the issue. Though it was not clear how many are linked to sanctions.

The government has also faced criticism over the death of diabetic David Clapson, who died of hunger after having his benefits withdrawn for missing a JobCentre appointment. More than 200,000 people signed a petition calling for an official inquiry in to his death.

The sanctions policy has further been blamed for the increasing use of emergency food banks across the country. Moussa Haddad, a researcher and a co-author of the Trussell Trust report on food bank use, estimated that between 20 to 30 percent of food bank referrals were to people who had been sanctioned.

As the amount of money people lose to sanctions is often subsistence level, Haddad called for the government to automatically supply them with alternate means of welfare.

"We're calling for hardship payment applications to be made automatically when people are sanctioned, so that they get a proportion of their benefits back," Haddad said.

Between 20-30 percent of referrals to food banks are because of benefit sanctions [Getty]

Spokespeople for Labour, the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, all told Al Jazeera they would work towards reforming the current sanctions system in the next parliament.

Al Jazeera contacted the Conservative Party asking whether it would reform the existing sanctions policy if elected, but did not receive a reply.

Sparkes, whose Unite is an affiliate of the opposition Labour party, said union officials had held meetings with politicians to end rhetoric against people claiming benefits. He said the results of the coming vote will be crucial for the future of the welfare state.

"We're targeting the easy victims, the poorest in our society, that safety net needs to be there... It's what stops people from falling into really dire poverty," he said.

Follow Shafik Mandhai on Twitter: @ShafikFM

Source: Al Jazeera