Benefit sanction regime ‘harmful and counterproductive’, say MPs

MPs have called on the UK Government to urgently reassess its benefit sanctions regime after a new report found that the evidence that the policy is achieving its aims is at best mixed, and at worst showing a policy that appears “arbitrarily punitive”.

A Benefit Sanctions report published by the work and pensions committee, has concluded that the human cost of continuing to apply the existing regime of benefit sanctions – the “only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated” – appears simply too high.

“No evidence the committee received was more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work. Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive,” the report added.

The committee said the Coalition Government “had little or no understanding of the likely impact of a tougher sanctions regime” when it introduced it in 2012 with the stated aim that “benefits, employment support and conditions and sanctions together lead to employment”.

At that point, the government promised to review the reform’s impact and whether it was achieving its aims on an ongoing basis, but six years later it “is none the wiser”, the report found.

Single parents, care leavers and people with a disability or health condition were found to be disproportionately vulnerable to and affected by the withdrawal of their benefit.

The committee said: “Until government can show unequivocally that sanctions actually help to move these claimants into work, it cannot ‘justify these groups’ continued inclusion in the sanctions regime. In the meantime, and until that positive link is proven, people who are the responsible carer for a child under the age of 5, or a child with demonstrable additional needs and care costs, and care leavers under the age of 25, should only ever have a maximum of 20% of their benefit withheld.

“DWP must urgently evaluate the effectiveness of the reforms to welfare conditionality and sanctions since 2012, including their impact on people’s financial and personal well-being.”

The committee added that the government should also “immediately stop imposing conditionality and sanctions on anyone found to have limited capability for work, or who presents a valid doctor’s note” stating they cannot work. Instead, it should work with experts to develop a programme of voluntary employment support for those who can get into work, it said.

Work and pensions committee chair Frank Field MP said: “We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned. They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel.

“While none of them told us that there should be no benefit sanctions at all, it can only be right for the government to take a long hard look at what is going on. If their stories were rare it would be unacceptable, but the government has no idea how many more people out there are suffering in similar circumstances. In fact, it has kept itself in the dark about any of the impacts of the major reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012.

“The time is long overdue for the Government to assess the evidence and then have the courage of its reform convictions to say, where it is right to do so, ’this policy is not achieving its aims, it is not working, and the cost is too high: We will change it.”

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis, added: “We welcome this report into the benefit sanctions regime – a regime that must be reformed urgently. We agree with the committee’s concerns that the current regime is harmful and counterproductive. In both our frontline work and our research, we’ve seen that sanctions both cause and exacerbate homelessness.

“At times when people are vulnerable, for example when they’re coping with trauma or illness, removing the support of benefits can be the final straw that pushes them to lose their home. And people who are already homeless often struggle to meet the conditions needed to avoid sanctions - not because they don’t want to meet them, but because of their highly chaotic and sometimes dangerous living conditions.

“We want the government to put safeguards in place so that no one who is homeless or at risk of homelessness is sanctioned. The report’s recommendations for Jobcentres to work with homelessness specialists, and for Jobcentre staff to adjust conditions for homeless people so they are realistic, are steps in the right direction. There’s clear evidence that the government can end homelessness across Britain if it puts the right policies in place.”

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