Two churches have launched a blistering attack on the Government for using hunger as a punishment for people claiming unemployment benefit, warning that using benefit sanctions to reprimand claimants who miss meetings or fail to look for jobs amounts to a policy of “deliberate destitution”.
In a joint written submission to MPs, the Methodist and Unitarian churches say the Government is presiding over a benefits system that places a harsher punishment on people who have the misfortune to be unemployed than those found guilty of committing a crime. The maximum penalty possible – removal of living expenses excluding housing benefit for three years – represents a loss of £11,000, while the largest fine imposed by the criminal justice system is £5,000.
In evidence to the work and pensions select committee published this week, they state: “The use of hunger as a penalty is simply unacceptable. It is extraordinary that the state would choose to punish lateness to appointments or sub-optimal job searching in such a way. The criminal justice system, when [it] fines or imprisons, ensures a person’s basic needs are met – there can be no argument, moral or utilitarian, that justifies a policy of deliberate destitution.”
The churches claim sanctions have left some people unable to buy food for more than a week, and have led to shoplifting, isolation and physical and mental health conditions. “The human cost of the sanctions system is extremely high,” the submission says. “One group we spoke with contained people who had received long (six-month plus) sanctions and who had considered taking their own lives.”