Job Centre. Photo: Oli Scarff
Benefit sanctions are unfair and hurt innocent vulnerable people
Days before the start of the election campaign, a Committee of MPs with a government majority has just published a report worrying that benefit sanctions “do not always” avoid causing severe hardship or hurting vulnerable people.
This is an important point. As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, there are many reasons for being disturbed about benefit sanctions (eligibility rules that can take away some or all of a person’s benefits). One good reason is the way in which sanctions contribute to making the benefit system as a whole harsh and unfair; think of the people who have committed suicide after being sanctioned, the ridiculously stupid sanctions decisions. That is possibly what Conservative minister Nick Boles had in mind when he spoke of the “inhuman inflexibility” of the sanctions system.
Another good reason is the hardship sanctions are causing for people who cannot be “deterred” by the threat of a sanction. There’s the 93,000 children hit by sanctions in 2014. There’s the 100 people a day with mental health problems – as the Methodist Church said:
Sanctioning someone with a mental health problem for being late for a meeting is like sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping. The fact that this system punishes people for the symptoms of their illness is a clear and worrying sign that it is fundamentally flawed.
And there’s the scale of the hardship being caused: food banks report that benefit sanctions are the main problem for a significant number of the families turning to them. The numbers being sanctioned have rocketed under the current government – in 2013/14 (the most recent year we have figures for), nearly one JSA claimant in five (18.4 per cent) was sanctioned, the highest proportion ever. And there’s the unfairness of the way sanctions are imposed, with PCS – the main union for Jobcentre staff – revealing the pressures on ordinary workers in the Jobcentres to “trip up” claimants, trick them into breaking a rule, so then they can be sanctioned.
Until recently this has been a story that only the people who have been sanctioned and the volunteers and others helping them have known about. But that might be about to change.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee has just published their report on Benefits sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review. They have called for:
a broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, to investigate whether sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately, in accordance with the relevant Regulations and guidance, across the Jobcentre Plus network.
Evidence given to the Committee revealed that sanctions may make claimants more likely to get jobs, though this isn’t certain and the jobs they get “often appears to be poorer quality employment, temporary employment or unstable employment.” Importantly, they called on the DWP to carry out a full investigation into whether long sanctions actually work.
PCS reported that the very tough rules left claimants feeling that “the smallest misdemeanour will result in them being sanctioned”. The MPs worried that “claimants are signing Claimant Commitments they know they cannot fulfil, for fear of being sanctioned if they refuse” and called for better protection for vulnerable claimants including reform of the system of hardship payments to reduce the risk of severe privation. One of the Committee’s recommendations is point the TUC has urged for many years:
that sanctioned claimants should be offered additional, tailored support, to help them meet their benefit conditions and improve their employment prospects, including attending a specific meeting after a sanction has been applied to discuss how to improve compliance and ensure that the Claimant Commitment fairly reflects the individual’s needs and abilities.
For me, the most important point about this report is that it was produced by a Committee with a Conservative-Lib Dem majority and we’re just a couple of days away from the official start of the election campaign. Perhaps MPs are starting to sense that voters are noticing the unfairness and harshness of sanctions and that this might mean lost votes.
Update, 24 Mar 10.15: A Freedom of Information request has revealed that, under the Welfare Reform Act 2012 you can be sanctioned for refusing to apply for a Zero Hours Contract job.