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Benefit sanctions applied ‘inconsistently’, MPs warn

Benefit sanctions have increased in ‘severity’ and are applied ‘inconsistently’, MPs say – and the Government doesn’t know why.

A new Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report into the use of benefit sanctions has revealed jobcentres and providers use them ‘inconsistently’, with some Work Programme providers referring twice as many people for sanctions as others in the same area.

It also found the ‘severity’ of sanctions - a reduction or suspension of payments because a claimant has not met conditions for receiving benefit - had increased in recent years with sometimes serious consequences.

The committee acknowledged that sanctions can help encourage people into work, but it warned the Department for Work & Pensions had ‘poor data’ with which to evaluate what works and is unable to estimate the wider impact of sanctions.

It also does not know their overall cost or benefit to the public purse or whether vulnerable claimants are receiving the protection they are entitled to.

‘Benefit sanctions have been used as a blunt instrument by Government,’ said PAC chair Meg Hillier.

‘It is an article of faith for the Department for Work & Pensions that sanctions encourage people into work. The reality is far more complex and the potential consequences severe.

‘Sanctions and exemptions are being applied inconsistently, with little understanding of why.’

Ms Hillier warned that sanctioning people can lead to increased pressures on other services and called for a more ‘nuanced’ approach.

‘Some people who receive sanctions stop claiming without finding work, adding to pressures on other services,’ she said.

‘Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead them into debt, rent arrears and homelessness, which can undermine their efforts to find work.

‘A third of people surveyed by the charity Crisis who were claiming Housing Benefit had this stopped in error because of a sanction – an appalling situation to be faced with. ‘All of this highlights the need for a far more nuanced approach to sanctioning claimants, with meaningful measures in place to monitor its effectiveness.’

‘As a priority the Government must make better use of data and evidence from the frontline to improve its understanding of what best supports both claimants and the interests of taxpayers in general,’ she added.