By Jasmin Gray
The government must urgently reassess benefits sanctions, MPs have demanded, branding the current regime so counterproductive “at times… it just seems pointlessly cruel”.
In a damning report published on Tuesday, Parliament’s Work and Pensions select committee said the human cost of the government’s sanctions regime was “simply too high”, labelling it “arbitrarily punitive”.
Harsher penalties – which also applied to more people – were introduced in 2012 in a bid to encourage more benefits claimants into work, with out-of-work benefits cut or stopped altogether if they fail to take certain steps in finding a job.
According to the cross-party group of MPs, not only did the coalition government – which brought in the more severe system of sanctions – have “little to no understanding” of the impact it would have on claimants, but the policy remains “the only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated”.
“We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned,” said committee chair Frank Field. “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 counterproductive it just seems pointlessly cruel.”
The committee heard how one wheelchair user was forced to sofa-surf and sleep in her school’s library for a year while studying for her A-levels after being sanctioned because she missed a Jobcentre appointment – despite calling ahead to inform the centre the meeting clashed with one of her exams.
Independent MP Field continued: “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.”
MPs have called on Esther McVey’s Department for Work and Pensions to urgently evaluate the effectiveness of benefits sanctions in getting people into work – as well as their impact on claimants’ financial and personal well-being.
Meanwhile, they said higher-level sanctions should be reduced to a maximum of six months, with claimants currently at risk of having their benefits stopped for up to three years for repeated failures under current rules.
The committee also called for sanctions to be scrapped altogether for people unable to work. The current regime of sanctioning sick and disabled people “does not work”, the report read, with MPs branding it “harmful and counterproductive”.
Finally, the report found that sanctions should be capped at a maximum of 20% of benefit payments for claimants with children under five, for those with kids with additional needs or care costs and care leavers under 25.
Field added: “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’.”
Reacting to the report, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood called the Conservative Party’s benefit sanctions “cruel”, arguing that they “push people into poverty, risking destitution and damaging people’s health”.
“A social security system that sanctions people instead of helping them when they are in need of support has clearly lost its way,” she said.
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesperson said: “We’re committed to ensuring that people get the benefits they’re entitled to, but it is reasonable that people have to meet certain requirements in return for payments. Sanctions are only used in the minority of cases when someone doesn’t meet these requirements without a good reason, and work coaches will continue to offer support to claimants to identify and help resolve the issues that led to that.”
“The government has conducted research, which found that 76% of Universal Credit claimants felt sanctions made them more likely to meet requirements, while 72% found they were more likely to actively seek work.”