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UK Politics

Tougher welfare sanctions spark 'destitution' warnings

Campaigners issued stark warnings today about the impact of tougher sanctions on benefit claimants who refuse work planned under Government welfare reforms.

Anti-poverty, disabled and other social charities were united with supporters of the changes from business and other sectors that making work pay more than benefits was vital.

But they complained that threats to remove benefits risked pushing many people further into financial trouble and questioned where the jobs would come from for people to do.

Oxfam's director of UK Poverty, Kate Wareing, said: "Changes to the benefits system proposed today will expose people to the risk of destitution.

"Removing benefits and leaving people with no income will result in extreme hardship for them and their families.

"This sanction, and the proposals to force people to do unpaid work are based on stigma. Most people receiving benefits do want to work, and punishing them as if they are criminals repaying a debt to society is not a fair way to treat someone entitled to support."

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of disability charity Scope, said the reform effort was "encouraging" but unrealistic.

"Despite a progressive vision, this white paper does not address the state of the employment market today, nor take into consideration the reality of people's lives," he said.

"And worryingly, it plans to introduce a 'regime of sanctions for those that don't play by the rules'.

"What about those disabled people who do play by the government's rules? Who try repeatedly to get work but are not successful?

"The sanctions the government is going to introduce will effectively penalise them, pushing them further into poverty, further away from work and ultimately creating more dependency on the state.

"The government needs to be clear in its aim of supporting genuine people today as well as introducing robust plans for the future."

Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), welcomed the changes but said red tape could hamper efforts to create the new jobs required.

"Business will support moves to make work pay - because UK plc cannot function efficiently and effectively with millions of people permanently outside the labour market," he said.

"Yet there are challenges too that must be addressed. If private sector companies are to create the jobs needed to employ local people, the Government must make it easier for small and medium-sized firms to take on staff - by stripping away burdensome employment regulation, and by ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed to hold down a job. Businesses will take it from there, and train up the specialist workforce they need to deliver growth.

"Ministers need to remember that welfare reform cannot be delivered in isolation from other policy changes. If we are to make 2011 a year for growth, concerted action is also needed to strip away regulation, fix the planning system, and ensure businesses have access to the finance needed to underpin growth."

Turning Point's chief executive Lord Victor Adebowale said: "The new system needs to be simple to use, but sophisticated in its understanding of individuals' needs and motivations. Few governments plan for suffering - but the test is what they do if it occurs.

"For the proposed radical changes to the welfare system to work, the government needs to prepare for unintended consequences.

"The potential for benefit sanctions to exacerbate welfare dependency, increasing the need for other types of support services is significant - all increasing the cost to the public purse.

"They will need to safeguard the most vulnerable and act to prevent the creation of a new underclass. Work pays but poverty costs."

A warm welcome came from the Centre for Social Justice - the thinktank founded by Iain Duncan Smith and where he developed the ideas he is now implementing as Work and Pensions Secretary.

Executive director Gavin Poole said: "We are delighted to see the Government today taking a massive step towards tackling one of the most significant drivers of poverty and cutting through the biggest barrier to work: the welfare state itself."