A cross-party group of MPs has called for the government to reassess its benefit sanctions regime, describing it as “pointlessly cruel.” They argue the regime leaves single parents, care leavers and people with a disability or health condition “disproportionately vulnerable.”
Benefit sanctions are penalties that can be imposed on claimants for missing JobCentre appointments. They can also be imposed if claimants are accused of failing to show efforts to find work.
By not meeting conditions such as these, claimants risk losing their Jobseeker’s or Universal Credit Standard Allowance.
The Commons Work and Pensions Committee received more than 500 responses detailing claimants’ experience of the sanctions regime, which included cases of “extreme hardship and distress.”
‘Harmful and Counterproductive’
The stories included a wheelchair user who ‘sofa-surfed’ with friends or slept in a college library for a year after her benefits were wrongly taken away.
In another case, a man was sanctioned for failing to turn up to an appointment three days after he was hospitalised with severe epileptic seizures.
The MPs found that docking people with disabilities’ benefits was “harmful and counterproductive.” They called for the policy to be halted immediately for those with limited capability for work or a doctor’s note saying they can’t work.
It can only be right for the government to take a long hard look at what is going on.
Frank Field MP, Chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee
The Equality Act 2010 states that people with disabilities should be treated equally and protected from discrimination. Article 14 of the Human Rights Convention, which prohibits discrimination, also plays a role in protecting the rights of people with disabilities. While not mentioned explicitly in Article 14, the Human Rights Court has found that disability should be considered one of the protected categories.
Article 14 is meant to ensure that people can access the other rights in the Human Rights Convention without discrimination.
The report also looked at the effect sanctions had on families. Without clear evidence that sanctions push single parents to return to work, the report argued that it was “hard to justify” their inclusion in the system.
It warned that children risk becoming “collateral damage” as the withdrawal of their parent’s benefits harmed their welfare.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child is an international commitment to the principles of children’s rights. It was put in place to protect young people from human rights abuses and to ensure their dignity and freedoms.
Recommendations for Change
Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey (left). (Cropped) Credit: Flickr/Gareth Milner
The committee found that the human cost of the current system, which was first introduced by the coalition government in 2012, is “too high.”
It reported that there was “little or no understanding of the likely impact” of a tougher sanctions regime ahead of its implementation, and that the promised ongoing review into its effects had failed.
Six years later, the committee claimed that the government “is none the wiser,” with evidence for the effectiveness of sanctions “mixed” at best, and “counterproductive” at worst.
In some “higher level” sanctions 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 two months for the first failure to comply, and four to six months for subsequent breaches.
It also said that people who are the responsible carer for a child under five, or a child with additional needs and care costs, and care leavers under the age of 25, should only ever have a maximum of 20 per cent of their benefit withheld.
Government Should ‘Take a Long Hard Look’
Commons Work and Pensions Committee Chair, Frank Field MP. Credit: UK Parliament
A Department for Work and Pensions spokesman insisted that sanctions were “only used in the minority of cases.”
They added that “work coaches will continue to offer support to claimants to identify and help resolve the issues.”
Committee Chair Frank Field MP said that they had heard from people “left bewildered and driven to despair.”
He stated that these people, often along with their children, had become, “the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counterproductive it just seems pointlessly cruel.
“While none of them told us that there should be no benefit sanctions at all, it can only be right for the government to take a long hard look at what is going on.
“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.”