The Tory government’s benefits sanctions regime, which has brought misery to millions and in some cases has even been fatal, continues unabated under the assumption that it works – that it gets people back into employment and saves the taxpayer money.
But a damning new report by the independent National Audit Office (NAO) has found that there is no evidence that sanctions, which deny people their welfare entitlements for often spurious reasons, actually work – and beyond the suffering they cause claimants, sanctions may present an additional cost to the taxpayer.
The report also criticised the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) for failing to keep track of claimants who have been sanctioned – meaning thousands may be falling through the cracks after their benefits are cut, neither finding work nor having any social safety net to fall back on. The DWP has also failed to measure any costs and benefits of its sanctions system.
Another key problem, the report found, was that the meting out of sanctions was inconsistent across job centres and in different regions.
Public accounts committee chair Labour MP Meg Hillier condemned benefit sanctions for punishing “some of the poorest people in the country”.
“But despite the anxiety and misery they cause, it seems to be pot luck who gets sanctioned,” she added.
“While studies suggest sanctions do encourage some people back into work, other people stop claiming but do not start working and the Department for Work and Pensions has no record of them. If vulnerable people fall through the safety net, what happens to them?”
Although the DWP under former work secretary Iain Duncan Smith and current secretary Damian Green has sought to downplay the role that sanctions has played in the benefits system, over the last five years an astonishing one in four claimants has been sanctioned.
In 2015 alone, 850,000 claimants were referred to the DWP for sanctions, and nearly half actually received a sanction.
Over that year, £132m was withheld from claimants, some of whom received hardship payments totalling £35m. But the sanctions system in 2015 took up to £50m to administer, which, the NAO report concluded, means taxpayers are not getting value for money.
The NAO also criticised the government for only using international evidence to demonstrate that sanctions encourage people back into work, instead of evidence from UK claimants.
“[The government] cannot simply rely on international evidence … Until the Department can show greater consistency in its use of sanctions and demonstrate that their effectiveness is proportionate to their costs we cannot conclude that the Department is achieving value for money,” the report noted.
Shadow work and pensions secretary Debbie Abrahams emphasised the need for government accountability.
“Labour has repeatedly called on the government to have an independent review of benefit sanctions and the NAO also makes this recommendation,” she said.
“It’s time the government looks again at their sanctions regimes and ensures fairness and financial sustainability for both claimants and the government.”
The latest report from the NAO adds to evidence showing the government’s sanctions policy to be a failure. Just last month, an Oxford University study found a strong correlation between benefits sanctions and the dramatically increased use of food banks. Last year, the DWP itself admitted that 1 in 5 benefits-related deaths have involved sanctions.
As families on benefits continue to live with the ever-present fear of being sanctioned, they’ll be doubly hit by a new cap on benefits, which was lowered by the government last month. Many of these families have now begun losing up to £115 a week – a stark reality which will affect 300,000 children, dragging many of them into abject poverty.
Frighteningly, benefits sanctions are not only confined to those who are out of work – earlier this year, the DWP began rolling out in-work conditionality, meaning that if you’re low-paid and not able to find a job with enough hours, your Universal Credit benefits can be stopped too.
Even the DWP’s own guidelines to ‘decision makers’ – those who decide whether to implement a sanction – admit that after claimants are sanctioned, it is “usual for [a person’s] health to deteriorate”.
Last year, the group Church Action Poverty, condemned sanctions in its own report, arguing that “hardship occurs even when the [sanctions] system is used exactly as intended.
“The design of the sanctions system includes both the threat and the use of hunger as an instrument of policy…It is unacceptable for anyone to be punished such that ‘it is usual for their health to deteriorate’.”
End sanctions now
Unite assistant general secretary Steve Turner argued that enough was enough and called for an immediate end to benefits sanctions.
“There is not one shred of evidence showing that benefits sanctions help people get back into work,” he said. “But for those who do get sanctioned, the consequences are devastating, and sometimes even deadly.”
“This latest report shows that the DWP has never carried out any analysis on sanctions’ effectiveness, meaning the department never even wanted to find out if sanctions work – they simply don’t care. Sanctions are part and parcel of their twisted ideology that says that if you are out of work, or if you don’t earn enough, even if you’re working full-time, you must be punished.
“Unite has long been at the forefront of fighting benefits sanctions – and we will continue campaigning until the sanctions regime is stopped in its entirety.”
Unite will be organising a national demonstration against benefits sanctions on March 30 next year. Stay tuned on UniteLive for more information on how you can participate.