Jobcentre Plus.

The controversial practice of stripping job seekers of their benefits does nothing to incentivise them into looking for work, says the Scottish Welfare Reform Committee (WRC).

In a letter to the tory employment minister (pdf), Esther McVey MP, the committee states: “we do not believe that the sanctioning regime is contributing to JSA claimants finding paid employment and are not aware of evidence for such a link”.

Adding: “Rather there seems to be evidence that it is driving them further from the job market.”

The letters was sent in response to earlier correspondence (pdf) between Esther McVey and the WRC, concerning the Committee’s report on the New Benefit Sanctions Regime: Tough Love or Tough Luck?

Despite previous reassurances from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) that benefit sanctions are only only ever used as a ‘last resort’, the WRC writes that “there has been a dramatic rise in the rate of sanctioning”.

The number of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants in Scotland who have had their benefit payments docked “has risen from around 2% in 2006 to 4.6% in December 2013”, say the WRC, “increasing very rapidly through 2013 from 3% to an average of 5.7% in the last three months of 2013”.

The WRC also draw attention to ‘hardship payments’ available to sanctioned JSA claimants; arguing that many people aren’t even aware (or informed) that emergency financial support may be available to them.

The new Universal Credit boss Neil Couling, then the Work Services Director, refused to provide any details on the number of sanctioned JSA claimants who have been awarded hardship payments, say the WRC. “In the absence of this information it is difficult to assert that hardship payments are playing any significant role in alleviating hardship”. Mr Couling said the DWP would not be able to provide the information “without incurring a disproportionate cost”.

In a letter to the WRC, Minister for Employment Esther McVey writes:

“Sanctions are an essential part of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) and have been sine the introduction of the benefit in 1996 and have always been a part of the benefit system since it was established”

“The JSA regime is very effective at moving people off JSA and into work – around two-thirds of JSA claimants end their JSA claim because they find paid employment”

“The vast majority of JSA claimants do not receive a sanction; in 2013, on average, only five per cent of JSA claims resulted in a sanction in any month.”

Jobseeker’s can have their benefit payments docked for a set period of time for failure to comply with requirements placed upon them, such as attending job centre interviews or work experience placements. Charities, campaigners and some politicians claim that too many sanctions are applied harshly or for very minor non-compliance, such as arriving a few minutes late for a job centre appointment or not looking for work on Christmas Day.

The number of sanctions imposed against JSA claimants reached nearly 228,000 in the last three months of 2013. In total, 870,793 claimants were subjected to adverse sanction decisions.

Benefit sanction data since October 2013 is likely to be inaccurate, because the figures do not include job seekers who have appealed against the decision and are awaiting ‘mandatory reconsideration’.

The WRC said: “This is not transparent and we urge the UK Government to publish these statistics as quickly as possible”.

Changes to the benefit appeal process mean that appellants must first ask for the decision to be looked at again, before they can appeal to the social security tribunal.