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Alice Ashworth @ashworthalice Senior Policy Officer

Turning up the heat on sanctions

No employer I can think of would dock a worker’s monthly pay packet simply for turning up five minutes late to a meeting. And our justice system would never sentence anyone to going without meals for weeks at a time. Yet as a growing number of commentators rightly point out, this is exactly what’s happening to those being penalised under the Government’s sanctions regime.

In recent weeks we’ve seen benefit sanctions hitting the headlines more and more – and with every story we’re learning more about the human misery and suffering this system is causing. While this makes for grim reading, at Crisis we’re at least encouraged that the issue is getting the attention it deserves. We’ve long been calling for an overhaul of the current sanctions regime – I’ve blogged elsewhere about how sanctions are failing homeless people, and how we think the system could be improved.

Channel 4’s Dispatches this week painted a desperate picture of people suffering poor health and resorting to using foodbanks, thanks to a system that punitively strips people of their benefits when in many cases they are already struggling with difficult life circumstances.  It also drew attention to a deeply worrying culture within some job centres that effectively encourages staff to catch people out and set them up to fail.

What’s particularly concerning is that, in spite of growing testimony that sanctions are pushing people into homelessness and poverty, the current direction of travel appears to be to hand down more sanctions, not less.  The sanction rate has soared since the conditionality regime was toughened in 2012 and the Government is now set to start piloting conditionality and sanctions amongst working people for the first time.

If we’re to effectively make the case that sanctions need a rethink, it’s vital we don’t lose sight of what the evidence actually tells us. That’s why we have commissioned Sheffield Hallam University to conduct a robust piece of research into sanctions – analysing the operation of the current sanctions regime, the impact of sanctions on homeless people and the link between sanctions and homelessness. We’ll be publishing the first findings from that research next week.

By the end of the month we’re also expecting to see the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s report on sanctions, following its parliamentary inquiry on the subject. We hope to see the Committee recommend a full review of the sanctions regime. The next government must commit to establishing whether the strengthened sanctions regime is successfully encouraging people into work, as the current government insists it does, or if it’s just resulting in poverty and hardship. We’re confident this evidence base will make a clear case that fundamental changes to the sanctions regime are desperately needed.