Benefit sanctions might just be about punishing the unemployed, MPs warn

Cross-party committee says Government needs to provide more evidence that sanctions are not 'purely punitive'

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Recent changes to benefit sanctions may be geared towards punishing people for being unemployed and might not actually help them find work, a committee of MPs has warned.

Parliament’s Work and Pensions Select Committee said there was evidence that the sanctions caused more problems than they solved, and that the Government had not yet provided evidence that the system was not "purely punitive".

The committee said the Government needed to provide more evidence to support its hard-line approach, as the committee’s chair warned that financial hardship caused by the sanctions could lead families being unable to eat.

While benefit sanctions tended to stop people from claiming benefits, there wasn’t evidence that this was because they had found a good job, the cross-party group of MPs noted.

“There are concerns that sanctions might lead to a range of unintended consequences, including severe financial hardship and associated wider social impacts,” they said, adding that there was strong academic evidence to suggest that sanctions led to “poorer quality employment, temporary employment or unstable employment”.

“There are very clear offsetting negative impacts, which are likely to outweigh any small, marginal positive impacts,” the report reads.

Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, who chairs the committee, warned that sanctions risked impoverishing people who were hit by them.

“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,” she said

The committee’s report says the DWP’s sanctions regime – which involves stopping benefits for sometimes minor reasons – might simply be focused on punishing people for not having a job.

 

“We believe that it is important that the Government conduct evaluations to enhance the evidence base in this policy area, to demonstrate that the use of sanctions is not purely punitive,” the committee's report reads.

“We accept that any sanctions regime must be ‘credible’ if it is to influence claimant behaviour; however, it is not possible from the available evidence to come to a view on the relative efficacy and impacts of longer minimum sanction periods compared to shorter ones.”

Claimants can have their social security payments stopped for reasons including missing jobcentre appointments or failing to look for work.

In practice, however, many sanction decisions are perceived to be unfair. Widely-criticised decisions include people being sanctioned for missing jobcentre appointments because they had to attend a job interview, or people sanctioned for not looking for work because they had already secured a job due to start in a week’s time.

In one case a man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and thus failed to complete the assessment.

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 … We continue to spend around £94bn a year on working-age benefits to provide a safety net that supports millions of people.”

The Work and Pensions Committee called for an independent inquiry into the way the sanctions operated, for the second time in a year.

The committee is comprised of five Labour MPs, five Conservative MPs and one Liberal Democrat.

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