Suspending benefit payments ‘can lead to rent arrears and homelessness’, MPs warn

payUnexplained variations in the use of benefit sanctions are “unacceptable” and must be addressed, according to a committee of MPs.

A new Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report into the use of benefit sanctions has revealed jobcentres and providers use them “inconsistently”, with some Work Programme providers referring twice as many people for sanctions as others in the same area.

It also found the “severity” of sanctions - a reduction or suspension of payments because a claimant has not met conditions for receiving benefit - had increased in recent years with sometimes serious consequences such as debt, rent arrears and homelessness.

The committee acknowledged that sanctions can help encourage people into work, but it warned the Department for Work & Pensions had “poor data” with which to evaluate what works and is unable to estimate the wider impact of sanctions.

It also does not know their overall cost or benefit to the public purse or whether vulnerable claimants are receiving the protection they are entitled to.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said benefit sanctions have been used as a “blunt instrument” by the UK government.

She said: “It is an article of faith for the Department for Work & Pensions that sanctions encourage people into work. The reality is far more complex and the potential consequences severe.

“Sanctions and exemptions are being applied inconsistently, with little understanding of why.”

Ms Hillier warned that sanctioning people can lead to increased pressures on other services and called for a more “nuanced” approach.

“Some people who receive sanctions stop claiming without finding work, adding to pressures on other services,” she said.

“Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead them into debt, rent arrears and homelessness, which can undermine their efforts to find work.

“A third of people surveyed by the charity Crisis who were claiming Housing Benefit had this stopped in error because of a sanction – an appalling situation to be faced with. All of this highlights the need for a far more nuanced approach to sanctioning claimants, with meaningful measures in place to monitor its effectiveness.

“As a priority the government must make better use of data and evidence from the frontline to improve its understanding of what best supports both claimants and the interests of taxpayers in general,” she added.

Crisis chief executive, Jon Sparkes, backed the call to ensure sanctions do not lead to homelessness.

He said: “The government must do more to ensure that benefit sanctions do not lead to homelessness. Though there are measures in place to ensure that people vulnerable to homelessness are protected, the report makes it clear that these are not working.

“We fully support the committee’s recommendations to issue a first warning before stopping someone’s benefits and that the government takes more robust measures to ensure that housing benefit is not wrongly stopped as a result of a sanction. Government must also make it a priority to evidence the impact of sanctions on vulnerable people so that this policy is not a driver of homelessness. Better communication between the Department for Work and Pensions and homelessness prevention services could stop people from becoming homeless due to a sanctionable offence.

“We also support the committee’s recommendation to understand the housing related barriers to getting employment. With better monitoring in place the Department can make sure people get the support they need, rather than experience a sanction that puts them at risk of becoming homeless. We know from our own experience of helping hundreds of homeless people into work every year that this is only possible if we understand and help people address their housing need.”

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