Sanctions: Another Government Failure

Wednesday’s National Audit Office report into the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) sanctions regime, once again highlights its deep flaws. The NAO have found that the DWP are not doing enough to find out how sanctions affect people in receipt of social security payments and have highlighted a postcode lottery in how sanctions are applied throughout the UK.

The NAO conclusion that management focus and local work coach discretion “have had a substantial influence on whether or not people are sanctioned”. This reinforces the evidence I received from a number of DWP whistleblowers who spoke of management ‘expectations’ for sanctioning claimants, with sanctions levels linked to performance reviews. This evidence was ignored by Iain Duncan Smith when he was Secretary of State.

I have been campaigning to stop the Government’s punitive sanctions regime for nearly 4 years now, ever since the Coalition Government introduced their new sanctions regime in 2012. I have quizzed the former Secretary of State for Work & Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, specifically on this issue and have worked with people who have been affected by sanctions in my constituency and nationally including Gill Thompson whose brother, David Clapson, died after being sanctioned .

In January 2015 I managed to get the Work and Pensions Select Committee to agree to hold an inquiry on sanctions. The evidence to the Select Committee as part of the ‘Benefit Sanctions beyond the Oakley Review’ Inquiry was shocking . We heard of the sudden rise in sanctions with 3.2m sanctions between October 2012 and June 2014, and sanctions to people who were sick or disabled on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) or Incapacity Benefit (IB) increasing five-fold.

The University of Oxford estimated that more than 4 in every 10 claimants leave Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) after being sanctioned, and more than 80% of those that leave have no job to go to . The NAO report today has reiterated that sanctions can lead to lower wages and increase the number of people moving off benefits into inactivity. The DWP have failed to use even its own data to evaluate the impact of their sanctions regime.

Last year, the Select Committee made over 20 recommendations including stopping financial sanctions for people who were sick or disabled on ESA and for other vulnerable claimants. Unfortunately the Government refused to accept the Select Committee’s recommendations on stopping financial sanctions, stopping sanctions to people who are in low paid work receiving tax credits or Universal Credits, and on setting up an independent body to investigate deaths associated with a sanction or to track what happens when claimants are sanctioned and stop signing on.

The Government must now listen to the NAO who have called for a wide ranging review of sanctions policy, particularly as the Department rolls out Universal Credit. The implementation of Universal Credit has already been plagued with chaos and delay – seven delays to the roll out timetable to date. Today the NAO have highlighted how over 4 out of every 10 decisions about UC sanctions took longer than 28 working days. This is unacceptable as UC starts to replace many other benefits.

And sanctions have costs, not only for people who receive them but also for the Government. Astonishingly, the NAO highlights that the Government does not even track the costs and benefits of sanctions.

Since the birth of the social security system in 1942, there have always been conditions associated with receiving state support if you’re out of work. But this Government’s punitive, divisive and unjust sanctions regime must go. The narrow focus on getting claimants ‘off-flow’ has led to hundreds of thousands of poor and harmful decisions.

Labour will overhaul the whole social security system. Starting from first principles, we will change the culture of the system, in terms of its purpose, how services are delivered and performance managed; but fundamentally I want to change how our social security system is perceived. The Government have been very effective with the poisonous ‘shirker’ ‘scrounger’ language that they use, in trying to vilify people on social security as the new undeserving poor.

We believe, that like the NHS, it is based on principles of inclusion, support and security for all, assuring us of our dignity and the basics of life were we to fall on hard times or become incapacitated. Ninety percent of disability is acquired; it could happen to anyone of us. I don’t want people who have paid into the system all of their life and who need support if they become unemployed, sick or disabled to be made to feel worthless and dehumanised by a system that should be there to support them in their time of need.

This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post at

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