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TUC, NUS and UCU demonstration, Manchester, 29th January 2011 by Flickr user Plashing Vole

Poverty Action Group calls for an end to unfair benefits sanctions

Flick to the business pages of the local media and its all on the up. Whether it’s high-end manufacturing, tourism, financial services or the commercialisation of graphene, there are feel-good headlines heralding growth across Greater Manchester.

Yet in spite of Greater Manchester’s economic successes, reports show that levels of poverty and disadvantage still persist and hold the city back, and make it clear to policy makers and activists alike that even as growth and prosperity returns to Greater Manchester, it has yet to reach those areas and local communities that need it the most.

The schism between opportunity, city-boosterism and the permanent marginalisation of disadvantage has not escaped attention. It is a challenge that runs through the heart of city regional plans, such as the Greater Manchester Strategy, and it also led to the launching of the Greater Manchester Poverty Commission.

The Commission’s report in January 2013 delivered 16 key recommendations for tackling poverty; the Commission also led to the establishing of a Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group (GMPAG) to oversea the progress of these actions.

Now a cross section of members of the Action Group has chosen to speak out against one factor that is making progress on poverty harder to achieve: swinging cuts in benefits.

Members of the Action Group have published a letter calling for an end to harsh benefits sanctions.  At an earlier public launch event of the group, many of those attending highlighted the harshness of benefits sanctions and the negative impact they were having on those living in poverty. It was this groundswell that led them to speak out.

“Benefit sanctions are causing increasing levels of hardship, stress and anxiety for those in society who are already struggling to make ends meet.”

“The GMPAG is a coalition of citizens and organisations who want to and are willing to do something about poverty and hardship,” says Neil McInroy, GMPAG chair and Chief Executive of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies. “Benefit sanctions are causing increasing levels of hardship, stress and anxiety for those in society who are already struggling to make ends meet.”

The text of the letter highlights sanctions around Job Seeker Allowance and a chronic lack of information as being key problems:

We the undersigned call for an end to unfair and unjust benefit sanctions, which are causing increasing levels of poverty, hardship and anxiety to those most in need of support.  The total number of Job Seeker Allowance (JSA) sanctions in the year to 30 September 2013 was 874,850, the highest level since JSA was introduced in 1996.

Within the context of rising food and fuel prices, sanctions are causing people to make decisions over whether they ‘eat or heat’. There is a clear connection between the rising numbers of people using food banks through delays in benefit payments or through punitive sanctions.  They are also causing additional stress and anxiety, and exacerbating mental and physical health conditions.  

We also call into question the way in which the scheme is being administered which shows a lack of clear communication as to why decisions are being taken. A survey by Manchester Citizen’s Advice Bureau found that 40% of those who had been sanctioned had not received a letter informing them of the sanction and almost a quarter did not know why the decision had been taken.  A lack of reliable information leaves people vulnerable to future sanctions. The fact that Ministers have set up an external inquiry into how sanctions are administered and communicated, demonstrates that these issues are of concern.  

GMPAG believes it is unfair and unjust to punish the most vulnerable members of our society at a time when they need support the most.

The Greater Manchester Poverty Action Group - There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ - there is only ‘us’. 

Signed by Damian Burton, Director, SmartGreen; Greater Manchester Living Wage Campaign, Mike Cribb, Chairman, Quantiv; Ms Chris Bagley, Development Manager, Manchester and North Cheshire Region of the Federation of Small Business,  Neil McInroy, Chief Executive, Centre for Local Economic Strategies; Niall Cooper, Director, Church Action on Poverty; Oxfam; Richard Caulfield, Chief Executive, Voluntary Sector North West; Robin Lawler, Chief Executive, Northwards Housing; Social Action and Research Foundation; Steve Connor, Chief Executive Officer, Creative Concern; The Venerable Cherry Van, Archdeacon of Rochdale.


Time to bridge the gap

Three of the ten local authority districts in Greater Manchester (Manchester, Salford and Rochdale) are still ranked within the top 10% most deprived nationally, meaning that 23% of city region’s population, almost 1 in 4 of us,  live in the 10% most deprived areas. Levels of unemployment and economic inactivity are amongst the highest nationally, with over 15% of working age residents claiming an out of work benefit.

According to the GMPAG this continued inequality, exacerbated by harsh cuts, is resulting in high levels of deprivation and worklessness that means future generations of Greater Manchester residents are more likely to experience poor health, education and employment outcomes, creating a cycle of deprivation and poverty within the sub-region.

In the end, it’s drag on the whole of the city region as, in spite of our well trumpeted economic wins, the lack of a shared wealth continues to cost us dear.


Main image: Rally for Youth, a TUC, NUS and UCU demonstration, in Manchester, 29th January 2011, by Flickr user Plashing Vole