The government’s despised benefit sanctions regime has pushed people into sleeping rough, a scathing report by MPs has concluded.
The cruel measures that punish claimants for missing or being late to just one job centre appointment are inconsistent and have become a “postcode lottery”, the public accounts committee said.
The committee urged officials to review the regime after expressing concern that sanctions “have increased in severity in recent years and can have serious consequences.”
Public accounts committee chair, Meg Hiller, described the government’s use of sanctions as a “blunt instrument”.
The Labour MP said, “Sanctions and exemptions are being applied inconsistently, with little understanding of why.
“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.”
Sanctions can be imposed for a number of “offences”, including not looking for work, turning down positions and missing appointments.
Typically they last for four weeks and punish benefit claimants by withholding Jobseekers Allowance, meaning a loss of around £300.
During 2015, around 400,000 sanctions were imposed by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP).
“There is an unacceptable amount of unexplained variation in the department’s use of sanctions, so claimants are being treated differently depending on where they live,” the report states.
“The department has poor data and therefore cannot be confident about what approaches work best, and why, and what is not working.
“It does not know whether vulnerable people are protected as they are meant to be.”
MPs warned that sanctions can be used to punish “honest mistakes” and suggested that the DWP give warnings to people instead of punishing them for their first sanctions “offence”.
“The department told us there will always be variation. This does not mean that current levels of unexplained variation are acceptable,” the report states.
“It is important that the use of sanctions is fair and consistent and the department has not analysed why some job centres use sanctions so much more than others… Job centres may be applying different standards.”
The committee have given the DWP 10 months to provide information on how vulnerable people are protected.
The damning report follows a similar indictment by the National Audit Office (NAO) in November. The NAO said there were substantial sanctions variations across the country, with some Work Programme providers issuing twice as many referrals as others in the same area.
“People who are sanctioned are treated worse than criminals. At least criminals are innocent until they’re proven guilty – for those who are sanctioned it’s the other way round,” said Head of Unite Community, Liane Groves.
“Criminals are kept warm and fed after they’re convicted, while benefit claimants are left in a crisis where putting food on the table for themselves and their families and heating their homes can be made all but impossible.
“Contrary to what the government says, there is no evidence that sanctions work. If someone has their confidence destroyed and is reduced to survival mode, it is obvious that they are not going to be in a fit position to successfully apply for work.”
She added, “It is shameful that people who are down on their luck are treated this way. Unite is demanding that this regime ends and that people who are trying to find jobs are given adequate support.”
To find out more about Unite Community’s national day of action against benefit sanctions, or to get involved, click here.