JOBCENTRES should give warnings to claimants who are late or miss their appointments rather than stop their benefit payments, MPs said yesterday.
The public accounts committee (PAC) called on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to trial a system that cautions claimants rather than automatically docking benefits for four weeks at a time — costing the claimant about £300.
The DWP imposed a staggering 400,000 sanctions on benefit claimants in 2015, the PAC’s report said.
A sanction can last for up to three years. Nor are they dished out evenly across the board, with some work programme providers reporting more than twice as many jobseekers for sanctions than others in the same area.
DWP told the PAC that there would “always be variation,” the report said.
The PAC responded to the DWP: “The department’s internal auditors found evidence that suggested work coaches were not complying with sanction processes, weakening the fair and consistent use of sanctions.”
Homelessness charity Crisis and Citizens Advice both told the PAC that they were concerned that the inconsistency of punishment for “honest mistakes” would have an adverse effect on vulnerable claimants as they face debt, rent arrears and losing their home if they lost their benefits or had them cut.
And a third of claimants surveyed by Crisis found that their housing benefit had been stopped because of a sanction on jobseeker’s allowance, employment support allowance, universal credit and income support.
Crisis told the PAC that safeguards promised by the DWP were not working and that homeless people were generally sanctioned twice as much as the general claimant population.
The charity also said that although vulnerable people were not necessarily being targeted by jobcentres, they were more likely to be unable to comply with the sanction regime.
Nearly half of claimants polled by Citizens Advice in 2015 said they felt that their sanction could have been avoided if they had received a warning instead.
PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier MP said today: “Benefit sanctions have been used as a blunt instrument by government.
“It is an article of faith for the DWP that sanctions encourage people into work. The reality is far more complex and the potential consequences severe.”