The Public Account Committee (PAC) has reported that unexplained variations in the use of benefit sanctions are unacceptable.
The MPs urged the Department for Work & Pensions to review their use, which it finds “have increased in severity in recent years and can have serious consequences”.
They acknowledged that sanctions – a reduction or suspension of payments because a claimant has not met conditions for receiving benefit – do encourage some people into work. But they concluded the Department has poor data with which to evaluate what works and is unable to estimate the wider impact of sanctions – including their overall cost or benefit to the public purse.
The committee said that there was inconsistent imposition of sanctions by different jobcentres and providers, with some Work Programme providers referring twice as many people for sanctions as other providers in the same area.
It is also concerned that the Department does not know whether vulnerable claimants, some of whom can be excused from having to meet benefit conditions, receive the protection to which they are entitled.
Among its recommendations to Government, the PAC added its voice to calls for the Department to undertake a trial of warnings, rather than sanctions, for first sanctionable
It urged the Department tod monitor the variations in sanction referrals and assess reasons for the differences across jobcentres. It also said the DWP should report back on the take-up of protections for vulnerable groups and “set out what more it will do to assure itself that Housing Benefit is not being stopped in error due to sanctions”.
The PAC concluded that there are significant gaps in the Department’s understanding of sanctions and urges it to make and report progress in improving data systems,
including on linking earnings outcomes to sanctions data.
The PAC’s chair Meg Hillier said: “Benefit sanctions have been used as a blunt instrument by Government. It is an article of faith for the DWP that sanctions encourage people into work.
“The reality is far more complex and the potential consequences severe. Sanctions and exemptions are being applied inconsistently, with little understanding of why.
“Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead them into debt, rent arrears and homelessness, which can undermine their efforts to find work. A third of people surveyed by the charity Crisis who were claiming Housing Benefit had this stopped in error because of a sanction – an appalling situation to be faced with.”