MPs call for ‘urgent’ review into benefits sanctions

Dame Anne Begg
Dame Anne Begg

MPs have called for a full and “urgent” independent review to investigate whether benefit sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately.

A report by the UK’s work and pensions select committee found that benefit sanctions are causing “severe financial hardship” to some of society’s most vulnerable members and raised concerns about “targets” for sanctions being adopted in “a number of individual Jobcentres”.

The report highlighted complaints that money is being withheld from people with little or no other income and concerns about people having to wait 15 days for hardship payments without any source of income.

Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the committee, said recent research suggested that benefit sanctions were contributing to food poverty.

“No claimant should have their benefit payment reduced to zero where they are at risk of severe financial hardship, to the extent of not being able to feed themselves or their families, or pay their rent,” she said.

Ms Begg added: “Benefit sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income. We agree that benefit conditionality is necessary but it is essential that policy is based on clear evidence of what works in terms of encouraging people to take up the support which is available to help them get back into work.

“The policy must then be applied fairly and proportionately. The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. And it should avoid causing severe financial hardship. The system as currently applied does not always achieve this.”

Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) have backed the call for a full independent review of benefit sanctions.

CAS head of policy Susan McPhee said: “We welcome today’s report, in particular the call for a broad independent review. We have ourselves been calling for such a review for a long time, as it clear from CAB evidence that the current sanction regime is nowhere near fit for purpose.

“In principle, CAS does not object to the use of sanctions – but we believe they must be applied appropriately, with discretion and only as a last resort. Our evidence shows that often they are being applied unfairly and without warning or explanation, leaving people with very little money or none at all for long periods.

“Such sanctions are not only damaging to people, but they actually fail in the objective of getting people into work. For example, claimants who have been sanctioned can be left with no money at all, meaning they are unable to travel or to make themselves presentable for interviews or training, or to buy mobile phone credit to contact employers. This is a clear impediment to someone’s ability to find a job.

“This fundamental review needs to be undertaken as a matter of urgency. Over recent years, sanctions have increased significantly in length, severity and number. Between the end of 2012 and September 2014, over 150,000 sanctions have been applied in Scotland, affecting over 85,000 individuals. As the number of people being sanctioned has increased, more people have been coming to CAB help. In 2013-14, Scottish CAB advisers dealt with over 4,500 sanctions issues.

“Our evidence from those cases suggests that the loss of income brought about by a sanction causes severe hardship, a rise in the number of foodbank referrals, is putting tenancies and debt repayments at risk and in some cases is having a severe impact on claimants’ health and wellbeing. We strongly believe that a claimant should never be left with no income at all. At the very least people should be able to eat and heat their homes.

Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at homelessness charity Crisis, added: “We strongly welcome this report and its recommendation for a wide ranging review of the sanctions regime.

“We particularly welcome its call for a more common sense approach to sanctioning and for guidance on protecting the most vulnerable. Homeless people in particular can struggle to meet the conditions of the regime. Many are trying to rebuild their lives, and losing the support of benefits can be disastrous. At the same time, sanctions can increase people’s risk of becoming homeless, leaving them without enough money for food, rent or heating.

“Evidence is mounting of a punitive and deeply flawed regime – a postcode lottery with wide variations on the ground and large numbers of unfair decisions. Our next Government must listen to today’s cross party verdict and commit to a full independent review of the appropriateness and effectiveness of the regime.”

A DWP spokesman said: “As the report recognises, sanctions are a vital backstop in the welfare system and are only used in a small minority of cases where claimants don’t do all they can to look for work.

“Every day Jobcentre Plus advisers work hard to help people into jobs, and we continue to spend around £94 billion a year on working-age benefits to provide a safety net that supports millions of people.”

  • Report: Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review
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