DWP should undertake urgent review of 'pointlessly cruel' benefit sanctions, say MPs
With no evidence to support the claim that benefit sanctions help get more people into work, the committee said they were 'nothing other than arbitrarily punitive'
An group of MPs have said the Department for Work and Pensions must commission an urgent review of the regime of benefit sanctions, which it said were underpinned by an “unacceptable” lack of evidence and evaluation.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee said the department had carried out no evaluation of tougher benefit sanctions introduced in 2012, despite the coalition government at the time having “little or no understanding of the likely impact” they might have.
The changes mean claimants can lose some or all of their benefits if they fail to fulfil a "work-related commitment" such as turning up for a job interview or training on time.
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The government said at the time that the policy would be subject to ongoing review, but the committee said “six years later, it is none the wiser” about its impact or whether it helps get more people into work.
“The lack of any such evaluation is unacceptable,” its report said yesterday. It added that the lack of evidence supporting the harsher measures and data to understand their behavioural impact rendered them “nothing other than arbitrarily punitive”.
It argued that DWP should reduce the harshest sanctions until could come up with evidence that they were effective in getting people into work.
The research should take into account claimants’ physical and financial wellbeing, as well as the impact on public services, the report said.
The department indicated to the committee that the research to determine the effect of sanctions would be extremely complicated. “We agree, but we do not agree that this is a reason for the DWP not to try,” the committee responded. “There is too much at stake not to.”
Frank Field, the committee’s chair, said that in the course of its inquiry the committee had heard “stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned”.
“They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel,” he said.
“If their stories were rare it would be unacceptable, but the government has no idea how many more people out there are suffering in similar circumstances. In fact, it has kept itself in the dark about any of the impacts of the major reforms to sanctions introduced since 2012,” he added.
The committee said no evidence it received was “more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition”.
“It is one thing for a sanction to result in short-term hardship as a consequence of breaching an agreed work-related requirement. It is something else entirely for a sanction to affect someone’s physical and mental wellbeing, drive them into debt and leave them on the brink of destitution,” its report argued.
It said DWP must look in particular detail at how the sanctions affect vulnerable claimants such as single parents, care leavers and people with a disability or health condition, and that these claimants should be exampt from sanctions unless the department can demonstrate “unequivocally that sanctions actually help to move these claimants into work”.
It noted that children can become "collatoral damage" if their parents are sanctioned, and that this risk is greater for children in single-parent families.
The report stressed that the government must not only assess the impact of the benefit sanctions regime, but act on its findings.
“The time is long overdue for the government to assess the evidence and then have the courage of its reform convictions to say, where it is right to do so, ‘this policy is not achieving its aims, it is not working, and the cost is too high: we will change it,’” Field said.
A DWP spokesperson said: “We’re committed to ensuring that people get the benefits they’re entitled to, but it is reasonable that people have to meet certain requirements in return for payments.
"Sanctions are only used in the minority of cases when someone doesn’t meet these requirements without a good reason, and work coaches will continue to offer support to claimants to identify and help resolve the issues that lead to that.”
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