Work and Pensions Committee report on sanctions takes up many key recommendations made by Inclusion23 March 2015
The Work and Pensions Committee has published a report following its inquiry into benefit sanctions. The committee has taken up many of Inclusion’s key recommendations submitted through oral and written evidence – including the need for a full independent review of the sanctions regime, for changes to the legislative framework, for an evaluation of the 2012 changes, and for changes to the sanctions regime for ESA claimants.
Full independent review of benefit sanctions
A full independent review should be established in the new Parliament, to investigate whether benefit sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately, across the Jobcentre Plus network, says the Work and Pensions Committee in the report.
The committee reiterates this recommendation, originally made in January 2014 but rejected by the government, in the light of new evidence which raises concerns about the approach being adopted in a number of individual Jobcentres, and more broadly, including concerns about whether targets for sanctions exist.
The report calls for the independent review also to examine the legislative framework for benefit sanctions policy, to ensure that the basis for sanctioning is well-defined, and that safeguards to protect the vulnerable are clearly set out.
Dame Anne Begg MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:
“Benefit sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income. 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.”
A system of discretionary hardship payments exists to mitigate the risk of sanctions causing severe financial hardship. However, the Report concludes that changes are required to the system, to ensure that it is more effective in achieving this. In particular, the report emphasises widespread concern that standard JSA hardship payments are not available until the 15th day of a sanction period.
Dame Anne Begg commented:
“Recent research suggests that benefit sanctions are contributing to food poverty.
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.
DWP’s discretionary hardship payment system is intended to prevent this happening, but it does not always do so. This is often because JSA hardship payments are not available until the 15th day of a sanction period. It is not reasonable to expect people to live without any source of income for 2 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 or because they 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.”