Benefits frozen for Burnley job-seekers after government calls sanctions "counterproductive"
Hundreds of job seekers in Burnley have had their benefits stopped or reduced for up to three years, figures reveal, after the Government announced it is scrapping lengthy sanctions.
Work and pensions secretary Amber Rudd has announced that she is ending three-year benefit sanctions, which she said were "counterproductive" and failed to help people into work. Sanctions will now be capped at a maximum of six months.
Anti-poverty charities have welcomed the decision to scrap the harshest penalties, but urged the Government to make further reforms to end all punitive sanctions, which they said could leave people "hungry, in debt, and on the brink of homelessness".
Department for Work and Pensions data shows 280 high-level sanctions were imposed on people claiming Jobseekers Allowance in Burnley between October 2012 – when the current sanctions system was introduced – and January 2019.
However, the data reveals job centre staff tried to impose high-level sanctions 770 times, with the decision overturned or the case against the claimant cancelled in the remaining 494 cases. JSA claimants can be sanctioned for a variety of reasons, such as being late for appointments, not doing enough to look for work, or failing to attend a training programme.
High-level sanctions are the harshest penalties, and last for a period of three months, six months, or three years, depending on the severity of the claimant's infraction and how many times they have been sanctioned previously. There have been 2.1 million sanctions handed out to JSA claimants across Great Britain since October 2012, of which 185,858 were high-level.
In total, 5,426 sanctions have been imposed on claimants in Burnley. Anna Stevenson, welfare benefits specialist at the anti-poverty charity Turn2us, said she cautiously welcomed the news that sanctions would be capped, but called for further action.
“Every day we hear from people who have been sanctioned saying it has pushed them over the edge into poverty, leaving them hungry, in debt, and on the brink of homelessness," she said. “Study after study shows sanctions do not work, so we urge the DWP to scrap all punitive measures, such as sanctions, and build a compassionate welfare system that works for everyone.”
Ian Porter, from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said sanctions should only ever be used as a last resort, explaining: "Our social security system should be a public service that protects people from harm, but all too often sanctions, low benefit levels and delays are tipping people into destitution.
"It also goes against our shared values to ever withdraw support to a level where people are left destitute," he added. "Social security should loosen the grip of poverty and further reform is needed to make sure people receive enough support.”
A spokeswoman for the DWP said sanctions are necessary for the integrity of the system, and are only used when people don't fulfil their commitments to look for work. "Financial sanctions become much less valuable over time and undermine our aim to help people into employment," she continued. “That is why we recently announced a reduction in length of the maximum sanction to make them more proportionate, and why we have already launched an evaluation to consider further improvements we can make."
She added that most high-level sanctions lasted for three months rather than three years.