Ministers have quietly dumped their promise to test a gentler approach to dealing with claimants who breach strict benefit conditions for the first time.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) agreed in October to trial handing out warnings instead of benefit sanctions when claimants breach the conditions imposed on them for the first time.
It was one of five recommendations made in a report on benefit sanctions by the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) in February 2017.
But DWP has now said that it will not carry out the trial after all, because of “competing priorities in the Parliamentary timetable”.
There was no public announcement, but the decision was included on page 139 of the latest Treasury Minutes Progress Report, which describes progress on implementing those PAC recommendations that have been accepted by the government.
Although the progress report is dated 25 January, a DWP spokeswoman insisted that the decision to dump the sanctions trial had been taken before the appointment of Esther McVey as the new work and pensions secretary on 8 January.
She said: “The decision not to undertake a trial was taken at the end of 2017 – before Esther McVey took up her position as secretary of state.
“As you have read, introducing the trial through legislative change cannot be secured within a reasonable timescale.
“But we are keeping the spirit of the recommendation in mind in our thinking around future sanctions policy.
“To keep the sanctions system clear, fair and effective we keep the policies and processes under continuous review.”
Last October’s decision to trial handing out warnings had been seen as a sign that years of campaigning by disabled activists and anti-austerity protesters aimed at raising awareness of the harshness of the sanctions regime might finally be paying off.
It had come only weeks after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities made sweeping criticisms of the UK government’s welfare reforms.
The UN committee had called on the government to review “the conditionality and sanction regimes” linked to employment and support allowance, the out-of-work disability benefit, and “tackle the negative consequences on the mental health and situation” of disabled people.
David Gauke, at the time the work and pensions secretary, admitted at his party’s annual conference last October that sanctions often fail to work and can instead cause harm to claimants, particularly those with mental health conditions.
He promised then to try to find a way to make the sanctions system less damaging to people with mental health conditions, and the announcement of the trial soon afterwards appeared to demonstrate his department’s commitment.
But that commitment is now being questioned, following McVey’s appointment as his successor.
Among the victims of the sanctions regime was David Clapson, who had diabetes, and died in July 2013 as a result of an acute lack of insulin, three weeks after having his jobseeker’s allowance sanctioned.
Because he had no money, he couldn’t afford to pay for electricity that would have kept the fridge where he kept his insulin working, in the height of summer, and he had also run out of food.
An autopsy held after his death found his stomach was empty, and the only food left in his flat in Stevenage was six tea bags, a tin of soup and an out-of-date can of sardines. He had just £3.44 left in his bank account.
But despite the circumstances of his death, and clear links with the sanctions system, no inquest was ever held, even though DWP admitted that it knew he was insulin-dependent.
The DWP spokeswoman said: “It’s right that we encourage claimants to do everything they can to prepare for, or find, work in return for benefits.
“We are committed to tailoring the support that we give and any conditionality requirements to the specific circumstances of individual.
“Sanctions are only ever used in a small minority of cases, and people are given every opportunity to explain why they haven’t met a requirement before a decision is made.”
Linda Burnip, a co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “It comes as little surprise to us that DWP has used the feeblist of excuses not to trial a gentler approach to imposing sanctions on disabled people.
“How anyone can describe this abominable system as ‘clear and fair’ is beyond my comprehension.
“To say that ‘sanctions are only ever used in a small minority of cases, and people are given every opportunity to explain why they haven’t met a requirement before a decision is made’ can hardly explain the 600 per cent rise in sanctions handed out to people with mental health conditions in 2015, and is a blatant lie.
“Given Gauke’s acceptance that sanctions are harmful it is unproven, but seems likely, that this change is directly linked to the return of Esther McVey as a DWP minister.”
A PAC spokesman said: “The committee has not yet considered its course of action.”