More than 40,000 disabled people have had their benefits docked since 2012

New figures lead campaigners to call on the Government to treat disabled people ‘with a bit of human decency’

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Indy Politics

More than 40,000 disabled people receiving Employment Support Allowance (ESA) have had their benefits docked since 2012, new data released by the Department for Work and Pensions reveals.

The figures, released quarterly, come as the Government prepares to cut ESA benefits for new disabled claimants from April by £29 a week in the work-related activity group (Wrag). It is estimated to affect around half a million new claimants and has been criticised by campaigners for making it harder for disabled people to find work.

The new statistics show that, in total, 85,112 people on ESA benefits between December 2012 and September 2016 had their income docked after being “sanctioned” for failing to meet Government guidelines. Of these, 71,366 cases represent disabled people. But the DWP insists this accounts for 41,000 disabled individuals – meaning that some people had their income slashed more than once.

Benefits can be reduced for up to four weeks and these punishments can be applied for reasons including “failing to attend a mandatory interview” and “failing to participate in work related activity”. It has led some campaigners to call on the welfare department to treat disabled people “with a bit of human decency” rather than pushing those who are struggling into poverty.

Debbie Abrahams, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, told The Independent that it is “shocking to see that the Government have issued over 71,000 sanctions to disabled people on Employment Support Allowance that have been sanctioned since the Tories ramped up the regime in 2012”.

“This problem only seems to be getting increasingly worse, with nearly twice as many people being sanctioned on a monthly basis now than at the start of this year,” she added.

“Taken with the cuts to Employment and Support Allowance, this worrying trend goes to show how the Tories have waged seven years of failed austerity on the backs of disabled people.

Despite a gradual fall in the number of people facing benefit sanctions towards the end of 2015, there appeared to be a significant spike the following year. In September 2015 the DWP decided to cut ESA benefits as a punishment 988 times; this rose to 1,545 times in the same month of 2016 – a 56 per cent increase.

Baroness Cathy Bakewell, the welfare spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, added that “penalising sick and disabled people won’t make them any better”. Ms Bakewell said the new statistics provided evidence that the sanction system is failing.

“Perhaps instead of pushing those who are struggling into poverty the Government should be treating them with a bit of human decency,” she added. “Rather than cutting benefits for those who are too sick to work they could invest in the NHS, to help those who will be able to work in the future, or ensure their road to recovery isn’t made harder by not being able to buy decent food or heat their homes.”

Phil Reynolds, the co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, told The Independent there was no clear evidence that cutting disabled people’s benefit “will do anything to improve their chances of returning to work”.

He added: “In fact, it’s likely to cause unnecessary stress and anxiety that could make their condition worse, and push them further from the workplace.

“It’s vital that the Department for Work and Pensions stops sanctioning disabled people, and instead works supportively with them, to help them recover and be able to think about working again in the future.”

James Taylor, head of policy and public affairs at disability charity Scope, said the statistics “are yet another reminder of the negative impact sanctions can have on disabled people”.

He added: “There’s no clear evidence that cutting disabled people’s benefits will do anything to improve their chances of returning to work. In fact, it’s likely to cause unnecessary stress and anxiety that could make their condition worse, and push them further from the workplace.

“It’s vital that the Department for Work and Pensions stops sanctioning disabled people, and instead works supportively with them, to help them recover and be able to think about working again in the future.”

A spokesperson for the DWP responded: “The fact is the number of sanctions has more than halved in recent years. They are only used in a very small percentage of cases and as a last resort when people don’t fulfil their commitment to find work.”

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