The pressure group Gingerbread claims that ministers are systematically underestimating the risk of sanctions to single parents.
Researchers for the organisation scrutinised the government’s ongoing commitment to stringent “conditionality” in the welfare system – the ever-tougher standards that claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance must satisfy in order to receive benefits.
They found that: the risk of sanctions is far higher than the government claims – at its peak, around one in five single parents a year were referred for a sanction, and one in seven had a sanction imposed; single parents are at particular risk of unfair sanctions. They are also more likely than other claimants to get their sanction overturned.
Sanctions stop millions of pounds in benefit payments – £40 million has been stopped since new rules came in.
The findings are especially troubling since the new Universal Credit is set to increase the scope of conditionality, with 165,000 single parents of three- and four-year-olds soon to be at risk of being sanctioned if they are not actively seeking work. The new changes will also see the introduction for the first time of “in-work conditionality”, with single parents facing the prospect of sanctions if they don’t work enough hours or earn enough money.
The government has defended the sanctions regime as a last resort, only used in a “tiny minority” of cases against those who deliberately refuse to cooperate. Yet in the last decade, around 160,000 single parents have been sanctioned, affecting 250,000 children.
And the new evidence suggests that sanctioning is a much more common threat since stricter rules were introduced in 2012.
Sumi Rabindrakumar, research officer at Gingerbread, said: “Single parents want to work – already two-thirds do. We know through our helpline, however, that single parents increasingly feel punished for being unable to juggle seeking work and looking after their children.
“This is a widespread experience. Parents not only fall foul of an inflexible system, but are also sanctioned for errors made by the DWP itself, with resulting hardships that risk pushing them further from work.”