Bridget Phillipson, Member of Parliament for Houghton and Sunderland South, has joined her colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in calling for the government to address unexplained and unacceptable variations in the use of benefit sanctions.
A benefit sanction is a penalty, such as the temporary suspension of benefit payments, that is imposed when claimants of benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance or Universal Credit fail to undertake work-related activities aimed at helping them move into work.
In a new report published today, the PAC urges the Department for Work & Pensions (DWP) to review the use of sanctions, which have increased in severity in recent years.
Although the Committee acknowledges that sanctions do encourage some people into work, it concludes that DWP has poor data with which to evaluate what works and is unable to estimate the wider impact of sanctions – including their overall cost or benefit to the public purse.
The report also highlights the inconsistent imposition of sanctions by different jobcentres and providers, with some Work Programme providers referring twice as many people for sanctions as other providers in the same area, and raises concerns that the DWP does not know whether vulnerable claimants (some of whom can be excused from having to meet benefit conditions) receive the protection to which they are entitled.
Among its recommendations to the government, the report calls for the DWP to undertake a trial of warnings, rather than sanctions, for first sanction able offences; to monitor variations in sanction referrals and assess reasons for the differences across jobcentres; to report back on the take-up of protections for vulnerable groups; and to set out what more can be done to ensure that sanctions do not lead to the suspension of Housing Benefit in error.
Given the significant gaps in the DWP’s understanding of sanctions, the PAC is also urging ministers to improve data systems, including on linking earnings outcomes to sanctions data, to better estimate the impact of sanctions on claimants and their wider costs to government.
Speaking after the publication of the PAC report, Bridget Phillipson MP said:
“The public needs to have confidence that benefits are supporting people back into work. This report shows the government's use of sanctions just isn't doing that.
“The DWP has failed to evaluate the effectiveness and wider impact of sanctions. Some people who receive sanctions stop claiming without finding work, adding to pressures on other services. Others can find themselves in debt, rent arrears or even homeless – all of which undermines their efforts to find work.
“I am also deeply concerned about the Department’s treatment of vulnerable claimants. According to a survey by the charity Crisis, a third of people claiming Housing Benefit had this stopped in error because of a sanction. This is simply unacceptable and requires urgent attention from ministers.
“It is clear to me that sanctions and exemptions are being applied inconsistently, and that the DWP has little understanding of why this is.
“If the government is really serious about developing a social security system that supports those in need whilst making sure that people who can work are supported back into employment, it must make better use of data and evidence from the frontline to understand what actually works.”
The PAC Report can be accessed here.