MPs slam ‘inconsistent’ application of benefit sanctions

22 Feb 17
The government’s inconsistency in applying benefit sanctions is unacceptable and should end, MPs on the public accounts committee have said.

In a report, the PAC also concluded there were significant gaps in the Department for Work and Pensions’ understanding of sanctions and called for the system to reviewed.

Around one quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them. The committee noted that while sanctions can encourage some to look for work, for others, it can lead to hardship and undermine their efforts.
In extreme cases, where benefit payments are stopped, sanctions can lead to rent arrears and homelessness. Moreover, they can sometimes be imposed for honest mistakes.

MPs noted that some providers of the government’s Work Programme refer twice as many people for sanctions as other providers in the same area, without finding any explanation for the variation.

Also of concern was the that fact the DWP did not know whether vulnerable claimants, some of whom can be excused from having to meet benefit conditions, receive the protection to which they are entitled.

The committee also found the department lacked appropriate data with which to assess the impact of penalties. This led committee chair Meg Hillier to question the assumptions underpinning the use of sanctions in the benefit system.

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

Hillier cited a survey by the charity Crisis, which found that a third of people canvassed who were claiming housing benefit had this stopped in error because of a sanction, “an appalling situation to be faced with.”

As such, she urged the government to make better use of evidence and available data to “improve what supports both claimants and the interests of taxpayers in general.”

The report recommended that DWP trial the use of warnings, as a precursor to sanctions, echoing the independent review of sanctions by Matthew Oakley and the Work and Pensions select committee.

These findings chime with a report by the National Audit Office last November that found that the DWP was not doing enough to measure the impact of sanctions on people claiming benefit or wider society.

“All of this highlights the need for a far more nuanced approach to sanctioning claimants, with meaningful measures in place to monitor its effectiveness,” Hillier concluded.
Responding to the report, a DWP spokesman said: “Our sanctions guidance is the same right across the UK and the fact is the number of sanctions has more than halved in recent years.

“Sanctions are an important part of our benefits system, and are only used in a very small percentage of cases as a last resort when people don’t fulfil their commitment to find work.”

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