Thousands of young people have been forced to go without food or other essentials after their benefits were wrongly stopped under a “draconian” new sanctions regime, research suggests.
Since the Coalition introduced more punitive benefit sanctions in October 2012, more than 45,000 young people have been hit with an incorrect penalty, according to IoS analysis of Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures.
A sanction can mean having welfare payments cut off entirely for a minimum of a month and as much as three years for “repeat offenders”. The hardline system, which means people can end up cast adrift for accidentally missing an appointment, is thought to be one of the reasons behind the vast numbers turning to food banks.
Experts say young people are being unfairly singled out by the strict new system of penalties. Despite making up only 27 per cent of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants, 18- to 24-year-olds have accounted for 42 per cent of all sanctions handed out.
In total, 343,744 young people have had their benefits stopped because a job centre decided they have not abided by strict rules. About one in five cases results from someone failing to attend an interview with an employment adviser, though there have been examples of people being sanctioned for this despite never receiving an interview time.
YMCA England is publishing a report this week into the damaging impact of sanctions on the young people it works with. Denise Hatton, its chief executive, said: “The level of incorrect decisions being made by Jobcentre Plus is frankly scandalous. Benefits are supposed to be a lifeline and safety net for those most in need. When these benefits are taken away, it can be disastrous. When this is done without due cause, it is reprehensible.
“It is no surprise that the young people we support feel that the job centre is simply a place they have to go to be processed and punished.”
Of 79,924 young people who asked for their case to be reconsidered since the system changed on 22 October 2012, 38,969 had the decision overturned. A further 6,455 are recorded as successfully appealing a sanction, though the DWP says it is re-examining its own appeal statistics.
Sally Copley, head of UK campaigns at Oxfam, said that getting sanctions overturned is a “really painful” process that can drag on for months. Oxfam is pushing for more intensive one-to-one support for unemployed people as a more effective way of tackling poverty.
Shadow Employment minister, Stephen Timms, said: “David Cameron’s out-of-touch government is letting young people down, and the number of young people on Jobseeker’s Allowance for over a year has doubled since the election. The shambles at the Department for Work and Pensions, with a staggering 58 per cent of appeals against sanction decisions upheld, is distracting job centres from their real job of getting people back to work.”
The DWP has been dogged by claims that job-centre staff are given weekly or monthly targets for the number of benefits sanction decisions to take. The department strenuously denies this, describing the numbers as management information, not a target.
Nearly all YMCAs (94 per cent) responding to research out last week reported an increase in the number of young people they work with being sanctioned, with just under two-thirds indicating that the increase was significant.
More than four-fifths of the vulnerable young people who were sanctioned reported being forced to go without essential items. The most common areas where they were forced to cut back or go without were: food, 84 per cent; housing costs, 81 per cent; and toiletries, 75 per cent.
Citizens Advice has been inundated with requests to its bureaux for help with those facing sanctions since the changes came in 16 months ago. Citizens Advice chief executive, Gillian Guy, said: “Sanctions are meant to be a last resort but the experience of many of our clients is that job centres sanction first and ask questions later. In many cases the Government’s sanctions regime pushes people working hard to get a job further away from employment.
“A four-week minimum sanction can make it an uphill battle to put food on the table, let alone take on the training and skills development needed to maximise the chances of getting work.”
A DWP spokesman said: “Every day, Jobcentre Plus advisers are successfully helping people off benefits and into work as part of the Government’s long-term plan to build a stronger, more secure economy. The number of young people who are in work increased by 49,000 in the last three months, with the number claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance falling for the past 20 months.
“It’s only right that people claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work if they are able. Sanctions are used as a last resort and anyone who disagrees with a decision can appeal.”
Additional reporting by Dan Macadam