MPs urge review of benefit sanctions regime

24 Mar 15

The next parliament should investigate whether benefit sanctions are being applied ‘appropriately, fairly and proportionately’ across the Jobcentre Plus network, according to the work and pensions committee.

The MPs said benefit sanctions were controversial and the discretionary hardship fund set up to ameliorate the worst effects did not always achieve this.

Although agreeing that benefit conditionality was necessary, the committee said the policy needed to be based on clear evidence of what worked in terms of encouraging people to take up support to help them get back into work.

Committee chair Anne Begg 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 the rent,’ she said.

‘DWP’s discretionary hardship payment system is intended to prevent this happening, but it does not always do so.’

The committee has said that the legislative framework for benefit sanctions policy should be examined, to ensure that the basis for sanctioning is well defined and that safeguards to protect vulnerable claimants are clearly set out.

The report flagged concerns over DWP investigations into the deaths of vulnerable benefit claimants.

The MPs noted that the DWP is currently investigating all deaths of benefit claimants ‘where suicide is associated with DWP activity’ and other cases where the death of a claimant is brought to its attention through a system of internal ‘peer reviews’.

Since February 2012, DWP has carried out 49 peer reviews following a death, of which 33 have resulted in recommendations for change at either local or national level, the MPs said.

‘We have asked DWP to confirm the number of internal peer reviews in which the claimant was subject to a benefit sanction at the time of death, and the result of these reviews in terms of changes to DWP policy,’ Begg said.

‘We believe that a new independent body should be established to fulfil this role.’ The committee noted that the Oakley Review of Jobseekers Allowance sanctions in relation to Back to Work Schemes, published in July 2014 made a number of recommendations aimed at improving some aspects of the sanctions system. But it said a number of the Oakley recommendations were yet to be fully implemented.

Commenting on the report, a DWP spokeswoman 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 £94bn a year on working age benefits to provide a safety net that supports millions of people.’

The Employment Related Services Association (ERSA), which represents Work Programme providers, said it was ‘delighted’ that the committee had called for a review. ‘We’re delighted the select committee has backed our calls for more flexibility in the system so that Work Programme providers can accept “good cause” rather than being forced to raise doubts which could lead to a sanction.’

  • Judith Ugwumadu

    Judith Ugwumadu joined Public Finance International and Public Finance online as a reporter after stints at Financial Adviser, Global Security Finance and The Sunday Express. Currently, she writes about public finance, public services and economics.

    Follow her on @JudithUgwumadu_

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