The new figures from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) show that 2,882 decisions were made to sanction claimants of employment and support allowance (ESA) in December 2013, rising to 3,750 in January 2014, them 4,698 in February and 7,507 in March, an increase of nearly 580 per cent since March 2013.
The previous highest monthly total was in March 2010, just before the general election, when 3,673 ESA sanction decisions were made, and the lowest was just 138 in June 2011.
Under current rules, claimants will lose at least a week’s benefit for missing a single appointment or session of work-related activity.
Stef Benstead, lead researcher on the Beyond the Barriers report – which examined the failings of the ESA system and the Work Programme for disabled people, on behalf of the Spartacus campaign network – said the figures suggested that DWP was “inappropriately sanctioning loads of people”.
She said: “We know from all the whistle-blowers that there is a culture in the jobcentres of trying to sanction as many people as you possibly can.”
Benstead said evidence showed that sanctions were not an effective way to support people into work, and that removing people’s benefits was “entirely inappropriate for people who have quite a high level of illness or disability”.
DWP has so far refused to say why it believes the number of ESA sanctions has risen so sharply.
But a DWP spokesman insisted that sanctions were “nothing to do with controlling benefit spending” and were “only used as a last resort if people fail to take up the support which is on offer”.
He said that sanctions were only used when someone in the work-related activity group (WRAG) of ESA “fails to take part in work-related activity or they don’t go to a meeting with their adviser, which are a condition of receiving their benefit”.
He said the number of sanctions was “entirely dependent on how many people do or do not fulfil all their obligations”.
The “vast majority” of ESA sanctions only last for a week, he said, while those who are sanctioned keep the additional WRAG component of £28.75, and can also apply for hardship payments.
He added: “People who are in a job know that if they don’t play by the rules or fail to turn up in the morning, there might be consequences, so it’s only right that people on benefits should have similar responsibilities. However, sanctions are used as a last resort.”
The DWP figures were released as the Liberal Democrat pensions minister Steve Webb said his party wanted to introduce a final warning for claimants who failed to stick to their out-of-work benefit conditions.
He said the party’s general election manifesto would include a commitment to introduce a new “yellow card” system, with claimants given a reminder of their obligations and “clear information about the sanction process which would only be triggered in the event of a further misdemeanour”.
Webb said: “It’s absolutely right that when we pay people benefits there are expectations of them and consequences if they don’t meet those expectations. But the process needs to be fair and clear.
“There are too many examples of cases where people have been penalised unfairly.”
Another new set of DWP figures shows that the number of people claiming out-of-work disability benefits – either ESA, old-style incapacity benefit (IB) or severe disablement allowance (SDA) – has now risen for the last two quarters.
In February 2014, there were 2.459 million people claiming ESA, IB or SDA, compared with 2.456 million in November 2013 and 2.441 million in August 2013.
Early estimates suggest that the number claiming ESA, IB or SDA has continued to rise through March, April, May and June 2014.
The rise comes at a time when unemployment has fallen by 132,000 over the last three months, and the unemployment rate has dropped to 6.4 per cent, the lowest since late 2008.
Benstead said the rising numbers of ESA/IB/SDA claimants could be caused by gradual improvements to the ESA system, following four annual, independent reviews of the eligibility test, the work capability assessment.
But she said they could also be caused by huge backlogs in the ESA system, with 700,000 claimants stuck in the assessment phase of the benefit.
Meanwhile, a new Scottish government report suggests that disabled people in Scotland are set to experience a “significant” and “disproportionate” loss of income as a result of the UK government’s welfare reforms.
It claims that, of 190,000 existing working-age disability living allowance claimants in Scotland, around 105,000 will lose some or all of those benefits when reassessed for the new personal independence payment.
14 August 2014