Benefit sanctions; the devastating impact of rent and council tax during and after the sanction ends

21 September 2016

Ken Loach's "I, Daniel Blake" will be released to 1000 cinemas on the 21st October. 

Benefit sanctions; the devastating impact of rent and council tax during and after the sanction ends

The benefit cuts have created debt, hunger and ill health among decent people who find themselves unemployed through no fault of their own, or because they were already ill or disabled.  No law has had a more devastating impact on the wellbeing of benefit claimants than the benefit sanctions, which allow a jobcentre official to stop a person’s income for one month, three months or three years.  There have been deaths and suicides following sanctions throughout the UK.  This article is about a single adult who suffered a benefit sanction in Tottenham.

I met John Smith (name changed) after his three month sanction had ended. He lived in a fifth floor council flat and was wondering whether to throw himself off the balcony. He had a history of depression. The council was chasing him for rent and council tax arrears with threats of eviction, prison and the bailiffs. The arrears had piled up during the three months sanction when he had no income.  His adult unemployment benefit was £73.10 a week from which various debts were already being deducted. The penalty of a benefit sanction is experienced as unpaid debt for many months after the sanction ends. 

He had been sanctioned for three months by the Tottenham High road jobcentre for attending a job-related interview a day late. His GP immediately sent him to the NHS for twelve sessions of therapy. The rent and council tax arrears had piled up because the Tottenham jobcentre’s computer is connected to Haringey council’s computer. When John’s £73.10 JSA was stopped by the sanction at the Tottenham Jobcentre its computer sent a signal to the council’s computer telling it that John was no longer eligible for JSA. That signal automatically cancelled his eligibility for housing and council tax benefits, which were then stopped by the council’s computer. 

There was an additional penalty for John built into the computers. The rent arrears built up at 100% of the rent regardless of the housing benefit to which he should have been entitled. The council tax benefit only covered 80% of the council tax. But the arrears built up at 100%.  By the end of the sanction he was over £2000 in debt and expected to pay it off out of £73.10 JSA.

While we were working with the council to reduce the two weekly deductions from his JSA to as little as possible the bailiffs called at 7.30 in the morning demanding £400 the next day for a TV licence fine that John did not know existed. He called me at 8 am and I called the bailiffs telling them that they should not waste time enforcing that fine because we were taking the case back to the magistrates to seek remission of the debt and their fees.   I also reminded them that there is guidance issued by the Ministry of Justice which advises them to return to the magistrates court cases involving “vulnerable situations.” 

I wrote out a chronology of John’s sanction, the details of his debts, got a letter from his GP and prepared a means statement of income, expenditure and debts.  I then sent the whole bundle to the Magistrates at Highbury Corner Magistrate’s Court asking them to re-hear John Smith’s case. We were duly given a date. I went with him as a McKenzie Friend and the magistrate let John off the remaining £135 of his fine and dismissed the bailiffs without their fees.

Anyone summoned to court, who attends without legal representation, is allowed a McKenzie Friend; so called because the person who won the right to a friend in court was called McKenzie.  I have supported people that way for many years. It is not always straight forward because we are not allowed to speak without the permission of the Magistrate or the Judge. In John’s case he had agreed to tell the Magistrate that he had asked me to speak for him. So we had the following tussle in court.   

Me;                 “I would like to speak for Mr Smith”

Clerk;              “You are not allowed to speak Reverend Nicolson”

Me;                 “I am allowed to speak with the permission of the Magistrate”

John;               “I have asked the Reverend Nicolson to speak for me”

Magistrate;      “Please speak.”

The next thing to hit John Smith was the news that his council flat was due to be demolished.

John had a history of depression and was isolated. He was not coping during the three month sanction or after it ended. The computers whirred and council tax summonses were sent out, then the liability order was rubber stamped by the magistrate with thousands of others. They whirred again and out went threats of prison or the bailiffs for non-payment of council tax, when he had no income. More computer whirring and threats of eviction and homelessness arrive through the dreaded slot in door.  

The mismatch between benefit income and rent is the cause of much debt, hunger, homelessness and illness. It is even worse when people are incapacitated by the stress of having no income. Governments have been told for years by the Royal College of Psychiatrists that there is a link between debt and mental health problems. They report. “One in four adults will have a mental health problem at some point in their life. One in two adults with debts has a mental health problem. One in four people with a mental health problem is also in debt. Debt can cause - and be caused by - mental health problems.”

 Ignoring  this advice national government have reduced the lowest minimum incomes, sometimes to zero in work and out,  while local authorities have taxed the lowest incomes and enforced the tax. All that while rents escalate taking ever more of the income needed for a healthy diet, the fuel to cook it and keep warm, and other necessities. That was a recipe for misery. They knew about it before passing such unfair laws.  

Reverend Paul Nicolson

Tottenham,  21st September 2016.