A group of churches and charities have called on the UK government to hold an urgent independent review into the benefit sanctions regime.
The group argue that the government has failed to heed the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, who called for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions system earlier this year.
Dame Anne Begg, who chaired the Committee’s investigation, said: “The implementation of the present sanction regime is controversial with the government claiming it is effective in helping people into work while many others say sanctions are causing real distress to families and are actually acting as a barrier to participation.”
She added: “If sanctions work as a deterrent, why are so many people still facing multiple sanctions?
“As there are so many questions about the effects on people who have been sanctioned, it is time the government implemented the recommendation of my Select Committee in the last Parliament to carry out a full, independent review of the whole sanction regime.
“Many believe that sanctions are being applied to the wrong people for often trivial reasons and are the cause of the increased use of foodbanks. Only an independent review can get to the truth of what is actually happening so that government policy can be based on evidence and not seen as merely punitive.”
In a 100 day period last year, 346,256 people who were on Jobseeker’s Allowance and 35,554 people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) were referred for sanctions. These resulted in 175,177 sanctions for Jobseekers and 11,129 for sick and disabled people claiming ESA. 92,558 were blamed on a bureaucratic error.
The call for a review is supported by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and by charities Church Action on Poverty, Gingerbread and Mind.
Paul Morrison, Public Issues Policy Adviser for the Methodist Church, said: “The sanctions system requires fundamental review and we call upon the new Parliament to respond positively to the recommendations of the Select Committee.
“Churches and charities are backing this call because we see day by day the harm that benefit sanctions cause in the communities we serve.
“We recognise the hiatus caused by the General Election, but hope that the new Parliament will recognise the urgency of this matter and announce a full independent inquiry as soon as possible.”
A report published in March this year – Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions – found that around 100,000 children were affected by sanctions in 2013/14. The data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, also revealed that ESA claimants were being sanctioned at a rate of more than 100 per day.
The Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan said: “Since 2012, the rate at which sanctions have been applied to vulnerable people claiming Job Seekers Allowance and Employment Support Allowance in Wales has increased even faster than in England or Scotland.
“Many claimants, who are already suffering from mental or physical health problems and living in poverty, are threatened with sanctions because of administrative errors.
“For the sake of human dignity, fairness and compassion, the system must be changed.”
Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind, added: “Far too many people with mental health problems are having their benefits cut for not meeting the requirements placed on them, which are often inappropriate in the first place.
“The use of sanctions is causing financial hardship and is based on the assumption that people claiming out-of-work benefits lack motivation and willingness to find and keep a job, which couldn’t be further from the truth for the people Mind represents.
“The vast majority of people who are out of work due to their mental health want to work. But the constant threat of sanctions causes a great deal of distress, making people more unwell and a return to work less likely.
“We support the Churches’ call for the Government to commission an independent review into sanctions policy.”
Revd Phil Jump, Regional Minister for the North Western Baptist Association, said: “I am increasingly hearing stories of individuals whose lives are being blighted by the impact of benefit sanctions.
“There is clear evidence of the need for our government to take serious account of the concerns and recommendations of a committee which itself is part of our parliamentary system.”