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Alice Ashworth @ashworthalice Senior Policy Officer

Sanctions under scrutiny

Earlier this month, the Work and Pensions Select Committee held the first evidence session of its inquiry into benefit sanctions. At Crisis we’ve been worried for some time about the impact of sanctions on homeless people – and those put at risk of homelessness as a result of being sanctioned – and we have been calling on the Government to conduct its own review.

The good news is that we’re not alone in wanting to see the Government take a good long look at the sanctions regime. During the evidence session Kirsty McHugh from the Employment Related Services Association, representing the welfare to work sector, called for a full evaluation of sanctions. She argued that the evidence simply isn’t there to tell us whether sanctions are actually encouraging people into work as intended. At the same time she raised serious concerns over their impact on vulnerable jobseekers, firmly arguing that sanctions should only ever be used as a last resort.

This is an important voice in the debate around sanctions. While Crisis and other charities have long been drawing attention to the financial hardship and acute distress experienced by people who have been sanctioned, McHugh is for the most part speaking on behalf of Work Programme providers. And if even they don’t think sanctions are working, it makes the Government’s insistence that sanctions are a necessary part of helping people back into work look increasingly weak.

Crisis has long questioned the Government’s rationale that sanctions encourage people into work. Instead we know all too well how devastating sanctions can be for people who are homeless or vulnerably housed. For those who are trying to rebuild their lives following a period of homelessness, the sudden withdrawal of income can mean the difference between getting back on their feet and lapsing back into homelessness.

In our written response to the inquiry, we included the story of a vulnerable client who had successfully moved on from a homeless hostel to a one bedroom property and was sanctioned for three months due to a missed appointment at the Jobcentre. He was unable to pay his bills and as a result of the related stress gave up his tenancy. Another client was referred to a foodbank during a sanction, a rising trend highlighted in the evidence session. While the Government maintains that these sorts of outcomes are unintended, surely they are the inevitable consequence of a system that punitively withdraws funds from people who already have very little.

Our response to the inquiry, which calls for a fundamental review of the sanctions regime, also suggests a number of ways in which the current system could at least be reformed – above and beyond our recommendations to last summer’s Oakley review, which suggested ways of improving communications around sanctions. These include placing a greater emphasis on the role of Jobcentres and Work Programme providers in supporting people rather than sanctioning them at the first opportunity, introducing a warning system for first-time failure to comply with conditionality requirements, and a more thorough assessment at the beginning of a claim so that conditionality requirements are only imposed that an individual can realistically meet.

The day of the Committee’s first evidence session also saw a debate about benefit claimants in the North-east, which cited numerous examples of sanctions that have been inappropriately handed down to constituents. While the transcript of the debate makes for depressing reading, it is reassuring to know that sanctions are finally receiving the parliamentary scrutiny that’s so desperately needed. With the Select Committee’s second evidence session having taken place this morning, let’s hope this translates into a call for action that the Government can’t ignore and that we start to see the tide turning on the cruel and punitive use of sanctions.