A minister has been asked why the benefits of hundreds of sick and disabled claimants are apparently being sanctioned, even though they should not have to meet any of the strict conditions imposed by the government’s new universal credit system.
Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) figures show that more than 1,100 claimants of universal credit were being sanctioned in February this year (1,108), even though they had been moved into the “working enough” or “no work-related requirement” group.
They have usually been moved into these groups because they have been found not “fit for work” or are not expected to look for jobs.
The figures also show a striking increase in the number of claimants in these two groups who were being sanctioned from January 2017 (649) to February 2017 (1,109).
The concerns have been raised by the Commons work and pensions committee, after it was sent the figures by employment minister Alok Sharma.
In a letter to Sharma, the committee’s chair, Frank Field, says: “What is the point of applying sanctions to people who cannot work and are not expected to look for jobs?
“The DWP have yet to make the case that benefit sanctions work to get people into employment and it’s difficult to see how they can have that affect for people who are ‘working enough’ or cannot work.
“Benefit sanctions are the only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated, and the picture DWP paints of the policy doesn’t match the troubling stories we’ve heard.”
The committee also raised concerns with Sharma that DWP’s figures “consistently understate” the number of benefit claimants being sanctioned, particularly those on the out-of-work disability benefit employment and support allowance (ESA), where there is a high rate of successful appeals.
In Field’s letter, he says that DWP removes a sanction decision from its statistics if it is overturned at an appeal.
This had been pointed out by Dr David Webster, a leading researcher on unemployment and sanctions at the University of Glasgow, when he gave evidence in May to the committee’s inquiry into the benefit sanctions regime.
Webster had told the committee (pictured) that the only reason DWP had not abandoned ESA sanctions when the National Audit Office reported in November 2016 that their use led to a fall in the time claimants spent in work was because of “embarrassment”.
Field asks Sharma in his letter to publish pre-appeal sanction figures so that “the true picture can be understood”.
In one month, in December 2016, the pre-appeal figures would have been 57 per cent higher (1,173) than the figures published by DWP (749).
By January 2018, the pre-appeal figures were still 30 per cent higher (544 rather than 420).
Asked to respond to the points raised by Field in his letter to Sharma, a DWP spokeswoman declined to explain why disabled people were apparently being sanctioned when there were no conditions attached to their universal credit.
She did not dispute the universal credit sanction figures but said that “where someone’s situation changes and they have different conditionality, we can adjust an ongoing sanction amount”.
And she claimed that “only a small proportion of sanction decisions are appealed and in the cases where they are overturned, the claimant’s payments are backdated”.
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