MPs order demand urgent inquiry into "excessively punitive" sanction regime
Pressure is mounting on the UK government to review benefit sanctions after a cross-party committee of MPs deemed them unfair, excessively punitive and found they do little to help people get work.
The committee is calling for a full, independent inquiry into sanctions and how they are delivered after it heard evidence how the UK's regime was causing misery and hardship on top of already difficult circumstances for millions of claimants in all areas of the country.
It comes on the back of a short inquiry which found sanctions were being imposed inappropriately, causing hardship, destitution and ill-health, and routinely forcing jobseekers to rely on foodbanks to survive.
Sanctions mean claimants’ benefit payments are halted for at least four weeks for apparent breaches of jobcentre rules, such as missing appointments or failing to carry out enough job searches.
MPs heard evidence that sanctions were often imposed for trivial infringements where claimants often did not understand why they had been sanctioned, and often struggled to cope without income.
Committee chair, Dame Anne Begg, said: “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.”
The UK’s largest foodbank charity, The Trussell Trust, welcomed the call, saying the report “validates” the alarm raised by charities and churches in various reports about the distressing consequences of punitive sanctioning on the poorest.
What the charities say
Chris Mould, chief executive of the Trussell Trust: "We must not pander to the myth of the undeserving poorand ignore the real need of those in crisis in the UK.
"It seems to methat a system in which claimants are presumed guilty unless otherwise provedgoes against natural, or administrative, justice.
"This is a reflectionof the destructive narrative that has built up around benefit claimants,demonising and penalising people who, through life circumstances, find themselvesin emergency situations and struggle to find their way around a Kafkaesquesystem where they have, in the words of the report, been set up to fail."
Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group: “The committee’s recommendation for a full and independent review, which looks at the legislative framework of sanctions, gets to the heart of the problem.
"The law and rules on sanctions are a complicated and confusing mess which need urgent, comprehensive reform.”
Rachael Orr, head of Oxfam’s UK poverty programme: “MPs are right: it is time for the government to pause and think again on benefit sanctions.
“Sanctions have helped fuel the steep rise in foodbank use which is nothing short of a national scandal, yet there is scant evidence that this tough approach is effective in getting people back to work.”
Matt Downie, director of policy and external affairs at Crisis: “We strongly welcome this report and itsrecommendation for a wide ranging review of the sanctions regime.
“Evidence is mounting of a punitive and deeply flawed regime – a postcode lottery with widevariations on the ground and large numbers of unfair decisions.
"Our next government must listen to today’s cross party verdict and commit to a fullindependent review of the appropriateness and effectiveness of the regime.”
Scotland Network Manager, Ewan Gurr, said:‘We have been consistently keen to raise awareness of the significant challenges sanctioning has upon individuals.
“What is of real concern is the number of people in genuinely challenging life circumstances who find it particularly difficult to navigate through a system which was set up to support people back into work.
“Instead, we consistently hear people describe the current approach as imposing, confusing or one where individuals have, in the words of the report, been set up to fail.”
Over 80% of Trussell Trust foodbanks surveyed in November 2014 said that benefit sanctions were causing people to turn to them for emergency food.
Official figures show sanction rates have increased rapidly since the coalition introduced tighter benefit conditions in October 2012.
Foodbanks listed a variety of reasons why people were sanctioned, including people attending funerals of close family members instead of job clubs even though they’d called to let the Jobcentre know; people missing or being late for appointments for reasons outside their control; and people with literacy problems not filling out the form properly.
Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), which has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people seeking support and advice after being sanctioned, said the review had to take place "as a matter of urgency."
Susan McPhee, CAS head of policy, 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 our own 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.”
Over recent years, sanctions have increased significantly in length, severity and number in Scotland.
Between the end of 2012 and September 2014, over 150,000 sanctions have been applied in Scotland, affecting over 85,000 individuals.
A Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) spokesperson 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 billionn a year on working-age benefits to provide a safety net that supports millions of people.”
What the churches say
The Church of Scotland, along with Church Action on Poverty, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church, whichcollectively have more than one million members across Britain, saidthe select Committee report describes as a system that is broken and needsurgent review.
The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, said: “It is clear that sanctions are doing more harm than good.
"A radical overhaul of the current system will need to be top priority for whoever is in government after the election.
“Right now benefit sanctions are unjust, excessively punitive and fail to even meet the DWP’s stated aim of helping people into work. Indeed, there is clear evidence that they do the very opposite and make getting into work much harder.
"We must first assess whether the sanctions regime, in its present form, is fit for purpose.
“How can stripping away all financial support from someone on Job Seekers Allowance help them into work?
"If they cannot pay their bus fare to get to an interview or keep a mobile phone topped up so they can respond to potential employers, how is that supporting them into work?
“If they cannot pay their heating bill or buy healthy food, if they have to struggle under the added stress of severe financial pressure, how us that helping them back to work?”
Earlier this month the churches published Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, a report which used new DWP data to highlight how the sanctions regime is harming families.
In Scotland alone 6,500 children have been affected by sanctions on parents in 2013-14.
Data obtained through Freedom of Information requests alsoshows that people who receive the sickness and disability benefit Employmentand Support Allowance (ESA) because of a long-term mental health problem arebeing sanctioned at a rate of more than 100% across the UK.
The most common reason for being sanctioned is being late or not turning up for an appointment.