moneyA full independent review should be established in the new parliament to investigate whether benefit sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately across the Jobcentre Plus network, according to the Work and Pensions Committee.

The Committee called for the independent review to also examine the legislative framework for benefit sanctions policy, to ensure that the basis for sanctioning is well-defined, and safeguards to protect vulnerable people – including people with mental health issues and/or learning disabilities – are clearly set out.

Dame Anne Begg MP, chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said: “Benefit sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income. We agree that benefit conditionality is necessary but it is essential that policy is based on clear evidence of what works in terms of encouraging people to take up the support which is available to help them get back into work. The policy must then be applied fairly and proportionately. The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. And it should avoid causing severe financial hardship. The system as currently applied does not always achieve this.”

Hardship payments

For instance, the report calls for changes to the system of discretionary hardship payments, which exists to mitigate the risk of sanctions causing severe financial hardship. 

"Recent research suggests that benefit sanctions are contributing to food poverty,” said Dame Anne. “No claimant should have their benefit payment reduced to zero where they are at risk of severe financial hardship, to the extent of not being able to feed themselves or their families, or pay their rent.

“DWP’s [Department for Work and Pensions] discretionary hardship payment system is intended to prevent this happening, but it does not always do so. This is often because JSA [Jobseeker’s Allowance] hardship payments are not available until the 15th day of a sanction period.  It is not reasonable to expect people to live without any source of income for 2 weeks. DWP should make all hardship payments available from day one of a sanction period.

“Problems also arise because the claimant is not aware of the application process for a hardship payment or because they are put off applying because of the difficulty in understanding and navigating the system. This needs to change. DWP should not wait for the claimant to apply for a hardship payment. It should initiate the process itself, and then coordinate the decision on hardship payments with decision-making on the sanction itself, particularly where the claimant has dependent children or is vulnerable.”

Other recommendations made by the Committee included:

Establish a small-scale pilot to test the efficacy of a more targeted approach to sanctions based on segmentation of claimants by their attitudes and motivations

Develop new and more effective systems to monitor the destinations of claimants leaving benefit in general and, in particular, those leaving benefit following a sanction

Develop guidance which is specifically intended to assist JobCentre Plus staff to identify vulnerable claimants and tailor conditionality according to the claimant’s individual circumstances

Review Employment and Support Allowance sanctioning within the Work Programme, and continue to develop alternative approaches to employment support for this group, including voluntary models, such as Individual Placement with Support, for some groups.  

Welcome report

Paul Farmer, chief executive of Mind, welcomed the report. “People with mental health problems are more likely to suffer punitive benefits cuts than other groups, sanctioned even if they miss appointments because they are unwell,” he said. “People are unfairly treated as though they don’t want to work and, in the meantime they are made to attend CV-writing classes and other activities that might be wholly unnecessary, as part of a one-size-fits-all system that doesn’t take individual needs into account. Forcing people to engage in these activities, and threatening to cut their benefits if they struggle to do so, is inappropriate and only causes greater anxiety and stress, making returning to work less likely. This is also why we are pleased that the committee have called for more effective back-to-work support for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions.

“We especially welcome the committee’s recommendation that better evidence is collected on whether sanctions work. We are finding it difficult to get good data about sanctions from the DWP at the moment and have yet to be given basic information on the number of people with mental health problems affected, which we requested under the Freedom of Information Act almost 100 days ago. Good data is essential if we are to ensure the system works as it should and to hold government to account.

“We hope that the DWP will accept and implement these recommendations. In the meantime people with mental health problems are still living with the threat of sanctions, in a system that doesn’t understand their needs. Whoever forms our next government needs to take urgent action to address this. We are calling on the next government to move everyone who is out of work because of their mental health problem onto new, locally commissioned schemes which reflect individual and local needs and addresses the real reasons people are unable to work.”

"Failing, unfair system"

In response, James Bolton, policy officer for Mencap and co-chair of the Disability Benefits Consortium, said: “Findings from today’s Work and Pensions Committee report reinforce what we already know – the current sanctions regime is grossly unfair and traps many people in an endless cycle of poverty. Simply put, the current sanctions system is failing people with a learning disability every single day.”

“We strongly support the Select Committee’s comments regarding hardship payments: They should be available from the first day of a sanction, not the 15th as it is now. However this change alone will not help those people with a learning disability who do not know that they have been sanctioned until their payments just stop; causing  completely avoidable panic, confusion and yet more financial hardship. This often happens because nobody explains their sanction to them in a way they can understand, or because no-one gives them information they can read themselves. 

“We know people with a learning disability have been sanctioned again and again for not completing required tasks which they were simply unable to do, due to their learning disability. In all our cases, unfair sanctions were only overturned and reasonable adjustments were only made once Mencap got involved. This is not right. What is asked of people with a learning disability must be fair, appropriate and achievable, with proper support provided. Until this happens, they will continue to be failed by an unfair system.”