The commons Work and Pensions Select Committee (WPSC) has expressed anger and frustration over the lack of evidence provided by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to an inquiry into the effectiveness and impact of punitive benefit sanctions.
In the course of the inquiry, which included an online consultation about people’s experiences of benefit sanctions that got over 500 responses, the WPSC heard stories of extreme hardship and distress, only in some cases caused by protracted errors and failures of administration.
Official figures show Universal Credit claimants are far more likely to face a sanction (see their payments docked) compared to the ‘legacy’ benefits it is replacing.
Data also suggests that sanctions are being imposed for longer periods, and sometimes against vulnerable people the DWP accept are too ill or disabled to work.
In a letter to Tory Employment Minister Alok Sharma, the WPSC asked the DWP a number of important questions, including how it expects to evaluate the policy of increased sanction lengths.
The DWP Minister failed to provide a satisfactory answer, the Committee says, but simply confirmed that “whilst the date of failure is available (though not published), we still do not hold the start and end dates for a sanction and thus we do not hold the length of the sanction either”.
The WPSC says this means that although under current regulations a sanction may be applied for up to three years, it shows that the DWP doesn’t know how long each sanction actually lasts.
“It is difficult to see how they can therefore assess the effect of sanction length”, the Committee says.
The Minister’s response says that because less than 1% of claimants in the ESA Support Group – who do not have mandatory conditionality – move off the benefit and into work, it would be a “disservice” to exempt disabled people from sanctions.
This group of claimants, however, have been assessed as unfit to work,.. or even to look for work. The very low rate of movement into work is therefore hardly counter-intuitive, and the argument difficult to comprehend.
The DWP said in oral evidence that 70% and 60% of claimants said sanctions made them more likely to look for work. The Committee asked the Department to confirm how far this research was based on the sanctions regime introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012. The Minister confirmed that “the research relates predominantly to the old regime”.
The Committee asked what further evaluation has been done of the regime introduced by the 2012 Act, in particular regarding the impact and effectiveness of more severe sanctions. The Minister said: “The Department is building its understanding” and will “attempt to isolate the impact of sanctions on transitions into work and of earnings when in work”.
Mr Sharma confirmed, however, that “this will not provide evidence of the effectiveness of the 2012 Act, compared to the previous system”, though “it may provide insight into the effectiveness of the current sanctions system in supporting conditionality”.
The Committee asked how frequently claimants meet their named Work Coach. The Minister said that a study had begun to find out and the Department would write to the Committee again 6 months.
The Committee asked how much the Department will save by making hardship payments repayable. The Minister did not know, but said “officials are currently considering the feasibility of providing this information”.
The Committee asked for updated data on hardship payments. The Minister could not provide this information, but said the Department “will look to update the previous ad hoc release”.
Finally, the Committee asked what analysis the DWP had done to understand the higher rate of sanctioning observed under Universal Credit compared to the legacy system.
In response, the Minister admitted: “The Department is yet to undertake robust analysis into the extent of the effects on sanctions rates resulting from the differences in policy between UC and legacy benefits”.