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24.03.15

Committee urges review of DWP benefit sanctions

A broad independent review of the government’s controversial benefit sanctions is needed, say MPs, amid concerns they are unfair, disproportionately applied and cause severe financial hardship.

Sanctions are financial penalties, stopping claimants’ benefit payments for at least four weeks for breaches of jobcentre conditions, such as missing appointments.

The Commons Work and Pensions Committee believe that sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income.

Dame Anne Begg MP, chair of the committee, said: “We agree that benefit conditionality is necessary but it is essential that policy is based on clear evidence of what works in terms of encouraging people to take up the support which is available to help them get back into work.

“The policy must then be applied fairly and proportionately. The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. And it should avoid causing severe financial hardship. The system as currently applied does not always achieve this."

The MPs believe an independent review is necessary after hearing new evidence which raises concerns about the approach being adopted in a number of individual Jobcentres, including concerns about whether targets for sanctions exist.

The committee also heard evidence that indicated that sanctions were often imposed for trivial violations and claimants often did not understand why they had been given sanctions. They also heard that those who had sanctions imposed on them often struggle to cope with the financial hardship due to losing out on benefits.

“Recent research suggests that benefit sanctions are contributing to food poverty,” Begg said.

“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 their rent.”

The committee believes that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should institute a range of measures first recommended in the Oakley Review of Jobseekers Allowance sanctions in July 2014. In particular, they argue that claimants should receive pre-sanction written warnings and other non-financial sanctions should be used in certain circumstances.

The Oakley Review also recommended that Work Programme providers should be given a greater level of discretion, including the ability to accept claimants' "good reasons" for not meeting mandatory conditions.

Hardship payments are available to those who may face excessive financial hardship caused by sanctions; however the committee says that these require reform. The MPs are specifically critical that these payments are not available to Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants facing sanctions until 15 days after they have been imposed.

Begg added: “It is not reasonable to expect people to live without any source of income for two weeks. DWP should make all hardship payments available from day one of a sanction period.”

Problems also arise because the claimant is not aware of the application process for a hardship payment, she continued. Claimants are put off applying because of the difficulty in understanding and navigating the system.

“This needs to change. DWP should not wait for the claimant to apply for a hardship payment. It should initiate the process itself, and then coordinate the decision on hardship payments with decision-making on the sanction itself, particularly where the claimant has dependent children or is vulnerable.”

Another concern raised in the report regards 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. However, it was unable to confirm in how many cases the claimant was subject to a benefit sanction.

“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.

“It is important that all agencies involved in the provision of public services are scrutinised, to ensure that lessons are learned after members of the public are let down by the system, particularly where the failures of a public body may have contributed to a death.

“We believe that a new independent body should be established to fulfil this role.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “The committee’s recommendation for a full and independent review, which looks at the legislative framework of sanctions, gets to the heart of the problem. The law and rules on sanctions are a complicated and confusing mess which need urgent, comprehensive reform.”

A DWP spokesperson 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.”

(Image source: Kirsty Wigglesworth/PA Wire)

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