Iain Duncan Smith’s flagship Universal Credit could spark a ‘substantial increase’ in the number of Britain’s poorest people hammered by benefit sanctions, according to a leading think tank.
Punitive and spurious benefit sanctions have become common place over recent years, with the poorest in society being pushed ever-further into poverty rather than supported and helped into work.
More than 686,000 desperate people saw their benefits slashed or removed in 2014, including 37,000 sick and disabled people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).
Around 50% of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants referred for potential sanctioning in 2014 saw their benefit payments docked – an increase on previous years.
The ‘sanction rate’ in 2014 – the number of sanctions per month compared to the total number of claimants – stood at 5.1%, according to research from the New Policy Institute (NPI). This is a slight fall on 2013 levels, but still represents the second highest on record.
According to NPI’s research, a fall in the number of sanctions between 2013 and 2014 was mainly due to a reduction in JSA claimants and not because of ‘the system becoming less harsh’.
More than a quarter of sanctioned JSA claimants were disabled or lone parents, highlighting a lack of understanding and compassion for the ‘hardest to help’.
Primary reasons for JSA sanctions include failing to actively seek work, participate in training and employment schemes or attend interviews.
The government’s controversial Work Programme and other ‘back to work schemes’ are blamed for an emerging benefit sanctions culture among providers and Jobcentre’s, with sanctions resulting in an average loss of income of around £530 in 2013-14.
“The sanctions system has not been administered well – for example, the automatic referrals from Work Programme providers, or the high proportion of sanctions that are overturned on appeal, or the abiding reports of ‘expectations’ of reaching certain numbers for sanctions.”
Sanctions can last from anywhere between a few weeks and three years, with the average length being around eight weeks in 2013-14.
Increased conditionality under Universal Credit could result in a ‘doubling’ of benefit sanctions, warns NPI, with an additional 600,000 potentially pushed into the arms of food banks and loan sharks.
Only this time, benefit sanctions misery may not be limited to unemployed people alone. Low-income and part-time workers face the prospect of being pressurised into increasing their wages, working hours or finding another job. All of this with an ever-present threat of a benefit sanction looming over them and their families.
The report says: “Those with earnings below a certain level (normally 35 hours at the minimum wage) will be subject to conditionality, and hence the possibility of sanctions, in order to encourage them to find more or better paid work.
“This is in addition to those receiving other benefits with no work search requirements, such as housing benefit.
“According to the 2012 Impact Assessment, an additional one million claimants will be covered by conditionality.”
The report concludes: “Expanding massively the scope of conditionality and sanctions to new areas is an alarming prospect in light of this”.