Cruel Tory benefit sanctions regime to face committee inquiry

MPs have today launched an inquiry into the Tory Government’s controversial benefit sanctions regime, citing “copious evidence of claimants being docked hundreds of pounds”.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee, a cross-party group of MPs, will look at whether there is any evidence to support minister’s claims that benefit sanctions “encourage” the unemployed to seek employment, or if vulnerable people are being cruelly “pitched into financial crisis” through no fault of their own.

There have a number of media reports highlighting cases where claimants have been docked payments for several weeks, months, and even years, for “absurdly trivial breaches of benefit conditions”, such as arriving five minutes late for a Jobcentre appointment or being sanctioned whilst in hospital with “life threatening conditions”.

Others have been sanctioned for being unable to afford the transport to a distant job placement, and there is growing evidence to suggest work coaches have been pushed into dishing out sanctions instead of being allowed to use their own discretion.

Work and Pensions Secretary, Esther McVey MP. Photo: Public Domain.

The Committee will also look at the development of recent sanctions policy, like the “yellow card” system which gives claimants 14 days to challenge a decision before a sanctions is imposed.

This was announced in late 2015 but the Government has remained suspiciously quiet and appears to be rowing back on the proposal.

MPs will also consider the evidence for the impact of sanctions, both that emerging from newly published statistics, and the robustness of the evidence base for the current use of sanctions in the welfare system.

Previously published in the Department’s quarterly statistical summaries, the Benefit Sanctions Statistics will now be a separate quarterly publication.

A report released by the National Audit Office in 2016 was highly critical of the sanctions system and called on the Government to make a number of important changes.

The Government agreed to:

  • Undertake a trial of warnings for a first sanctionable offence, but this has yet to be implemented.
  • Monitor variation in sanction referrals and to assess the reasons for such variation. This research was due to be published in March but has been delayed.
  • Monitor the use and take-up of protections for vulnerable groups. The DWP is “still considering the best way to qualitatively assess the use and effectiveness of protections for vulnerable claimants”.
  • Improve data systems, including on linking information (e.g. earnings and sanctions)
  • Estimate the impacts of sanctions on claimants and their wider costs to government. This recommendation has still not been implemented.
Benefit sanctioned have been blamed for pushing the poor to food banks.

The Committee invites evidence on any or all of the following questions, from benefit recipients with experience of the system, or experts in the field:

  • To what extent is the current sanctions regime achieving its policy objectives?
  • Is the current evidence base adequate and if not, what further information, data and research are required?
  • What improvements to sanctions policy could be made to achieve its objectives better?
  • Could a challenge period and/or a system of warnings for a first sanctionable offence be beneficial? If so, how should they be implemented?
  • Are levels of discretion afforded to jobcentre staff appropriate?
  • Are adequate protections in place for vulnerable claimants?
  • What effects does sanctions policy have on other aspects of the benefits system and public services more widely? Are consequential policy changes required?
  • To what extent have the recommendations of the Oakley review of Jobseekers’ Allowance sanctions improved the sanctions regime? Are there recommendations that have not been implemented that should be?

Frank Field MP, who Chair’s the Work and Pensions Select Committee, said: “Sanctions are an important part of any benefits system but they need to be applied proportionately and fairly and to account for individual circumstances.

“I’ve seen deeply troubling cases in my constituency that suggest these objectives are not always being achieved.

“We will be reviewing the evidence to see if sanctions policy is working properly and if not, we will recommend improvements.”

The deadline for written submissions is 25 May 2018. Anyone wishing to submit evidence to the inquiry can do so here.