Last week in Parliament my colleagues and I on the cross-party Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises public spending, published a damning new report on the government’s use of benefit sanctions.
I believe that the public needs to have confidence that benefits are supporting people back into work, but our report shows the government’s use of sanctions just isn’t doing that.
Sanctions have increased in severity in recent years. Whilst we found some evidence that they encourage certain people into work, we found that the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) is failing to properly look at their effectiveness and wider impact.
This is really serious, as 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 a job.
On Friday I visited the Shiney Advice and Resource Project, or ShARP, which does important work across our community. I heard first-hand about the real pressures facing those who want to get back to work. All too often jobs are insecure and based on zero hours contracts, while many families are forced to rely on food banks.
Another problem is that certain jobcentres and providers have been applying sanctions inconsistently, with some Work Programme providers referring twice as many people for sanctions as other providers in the same area.
The DWP’s treatment of vulnerable people is also deeply concerning. According to a survey by the charity Crisis, a third of people claiming Housing Benefit had this stopped in error because of a sanction.
That’s why I am calling for urgent change.
I want the DWP to introduce a trial of warnings for first offences, properly consider the reasons for the differences across jobcentres, and do more to protect vulnerable people.
Instead of automatically seeking to punish people who are desperate, we need a social security system that supports those in need whilst making sure that people who can work are supported back into employment.
That would be fair on the British taxpayer, fair on the most vulnerable who need our help, and fair on those who are doing all they can to find work.
This article was originally published by the Sunderland Echo on 2 February 2017. You can read the online version here.