BENEFIT sanctions have heaped more acute pressure on welfare claimants than any policy since the abolition of the workhouse, an academic will claim next week.
Statistics from the first six years of the new system, which sees payments to benefit claimants stopped for increasingly lengthy periods if they are judged to have broken the rules, show that sanctions are out of control, Dr David Webster, of GlasgowUniversity will say.
The period analysed by Urban Studies researcher Dr Webster covers the previous Conservative– Liberal coalition government, but recent statistics continue to cause concern, he says.
His research suggests the number of penalties imposed on benefits claimants in 2013 exceeded fines imposed by courts.
An event at Glasgow University tomorrow will hear that this practice amounts to a “secret penal system”, which lacks the checks and balances of the mainstream criminal justice system.
Dr Webster said by 2013, the Department of Work and Pensions applied more than a million sanctions against those receiving job seekers’ allowance, 32,128 against claimings of employment and support allowance as well as around 44,000 to lone parents receiving income support. In the same year, sheriffs and magistrates in Scotland and the rest of the UK imposed a total of only 849,000 fines, he said.
He claimed this was a particular issue because sanctioned benefit claimants are treated much worse than those fined in the courts.
“The scale of penalties is more severe and most sanctions are applied to poor people and involve total loss of benefit income,” he said.
Although hardship payments are available, families and individuals must wait two weeks to make a claim. By which time they can be reduced to destitution. Dr Webster added: “The hardship payment system itself is designed to clean people out of resources: all savings or other sources of assistance must be used up before help is given.”
Unlike the public courts, sanction decisions are opaque, Dr Webster said. “Decisions on guilt are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully… “The claimant is not present when the decision of guilt is made and is not legally represented,” he said.
Dr Webster said sanctions have the potential to have a devastating impact on some of the UK’s poorest people often for trivial or disputed rule breaches.
He said: “The transgressions which are punished by this system are almost exclusively very minor matters, such as missing a single interview with a job centre or Work Programme contractor, or not making quite as many token job applications as the Job Centre adviser demands.”
A spokeswoman for the DWP did not respond to Dr Webster’s concerns about the transparency of the sanctions system, but said the majority of job seekers supported sanctions. “Sanctions are only used in a very small percentage of cases. In the last year less than 1 per cent of ESA recipients and 2 per cent of JSA recipients were sanctioned each month,” she added.