Ministers broke promise to review ‘pointlessly cruel’ system for benefit sanctions, MPs say

Ministers have broken a promise to review the “pointlessly cruel” system for imposing sanctions on benefit claimants, a damning report by MPs warns today.

No evaluation has been carried out despite a pledge made back in 2013, it says – and despite repeated warnings of people being pushed into poverty after being wrongly stripped of benefits.

The Commons work and pensions committee inquiry said the human cost of stopping benefit payments to claimants judged to have breached job centre rules was too high and there was scant evidence that it helped or incentivised people to get a job.

It called for people with disabilities and chronic health conditions who have limited capability for work to be exempt from sanctions and said penalties for single parents and care leavers should be vastly reduced.

“We have 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 counterproductive it just seems pointlessly cruel,” said the committee’s chair, Frank Field.

He urged the government to take “a long hard look” at its regime, claiming ministers had kept themselves in the dark about the impact of changes to sanctions made since 2012 and had never properly evaluated the policy.

“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,’” said Field.

The committee warned ministers to be wary of plans to introduce sanctions for working claimants, saying there was no evidence to suggest that it persuaded them to work longer hours. “Sanctioning people who are working is too great a risk for too little return,” it said.

Sanctions are typically imposed for missed appointments or failure to show evidence of sufficient efforts to find work. Claimants lose 100% of their jobseeker’s allowance or universal credit standard allowance, which is £73.10 a week for over-25s.

In some “higher level” cases – such as a failure to take up paid work – claimants can lose benefits for as long as three years. The committee recommended that the maximum period for such sanctions should be limited to two months for the first failure to comply and four to six months for subsequent breaches.

The report warned that children risked becoming “collateral damage” as the withdrawal of parents’ benefits harmed their welfare. Without clear evidence that sanctions were driving a return to work by single parents, it was “hard to justify” their inclusion in the system.

A five-year academic study of sanctions published in May found that they were ineffective at getting jobless people into work and were more likely to push those affected into poverty, ill health or even survival crime.

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