Going ahead with tougher sanctions for benefit claimants ‘foolish and unfair’

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Benefit claimants in the north east of England are almost a third more likely to be sanctioned than someone in the South West, a report has said.

The variation indicates there is a “postcode lottery” shaping the likelihood of someone having their benefit payments stopped or cut in different parts of the country, the IPPR think tank said.

The report comes just a week after Chancellor Jeremy Hunt revealed sanctions reforms aimed at getting people on Universal Credit benefits into work.

Announcing his Budget in Parliament, he said: “Sanctions will be applied more rigorously to those who fail to meet strict work-search requirements or choose not to take up a reasonable job offer.”

Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt leaves 11 Downing Street, London, with his ministerial box before delivering his Budget at the Houses of Parliament
Chancellor of the Exchequer Jeremy Hunt leaves 11 Downing Street, London, with his ministerial box before delivering his Budget at the Houses of Parliament (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The report observes a “concerning trend” showing that the rate of Universal Credit (UC) claimants being sanctioned has risen rapidly since the start of the pandemic, with more than one in 12 (7.9%) claimants subject to sanctions, according to the latest data.

It said this means more than 100,000 people on UC have had their benefit payments stopped or reduced because they have been deemed not to have met the conditions imposed by Job Centre Plus.

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) states that in most cases people need to complete up to 35 hours of work search activity – such as preparing a CV, applying for jobs and preparing for interviews – per week in order to receive UC.

The IPPR has warned that more people relying on social security are at risk of hardship and destitution if their payments are reduced amid increasing costs.

The organisation also said the Chancellor’s “big policy changes” are “likely to lead to more people being sanctioned across the UK”.

Mr Parkes said: “Sanction rates are climbing rapidly, and it seems your chances of being sanctioned are largely down to the temperament of your local job centre.

“We already know that sanctions can push people into destitution, so as the cost-of-living crisis continues it is urgent that the Government pauses, rather than expands, its sanctions regime while it investigates what’s driving the rise and variation in sanction rates.

The report found that job centres in the north of England have higher sanctions rates overall – with the rate among the searching for work group as of November last year being 9.2% for the North East and 9% for the North West.

This compared with 7.4% for London and 7% for the South West.

It said: “Looking at the sanction rate by nation of English region, we find that people living in the North West, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber experience the highest sanction rate overall, with the lowest rates seen in the South West.

“This is substantial variation, meaning that someone in the North East is over 30% more likely to be sanctioned than someone in the South West.”

The report also found that young men are sanctioned at the highest rate, while the biggest rise in sanction rates was among over-60s.

It recommends suspending sanctions “until inflation is brought under control, with a long-term review into their future in light of available evidence in the UK and abroad”.

The report also calls for the DWP to urgently look into the rise in the sanctions rate and provide a public explanation, including looking at the geographical variations which the IPPR said are not explained by age and gender.

The think tank also called for sanctions statistics to be broken down by ethnicity, for a “yellow card” system where the financial penalty is removed for the first sanction and replaced with an intervention meeting, and a “grace period” from sanctions for lead carers for young children who are newly subject to conditionality as the latest measures announced in the Spring Statement are introduced.

A DWP spokesperson said: “Our priority is to help people find and move into work and the latest figures show an overwhelming amount – 97.6% – of sanctions are applied simply due to claimants failing to attend mandatory appointments, not for failing to undertake work search requirements.

“Sanctions can often quickly be resolved by the claimant re-engaging with the Jobcentre and attending the next appointment.”

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