The devastating National Audit Office report exposes Iain Duncan Smith’s project as an ineffective and hugely damaging racket
The quietly devastating National Audit Office (NAO) report shreds five years of ministerial bluster, misinformation and spin about the purported virtues of benefit sanctions, arguably one of the most brutal, controversial and ineffectual social policies of recent times.
Sanctions are a punishment applied to benefit claimants adjudged to have infringed jobcentre rules. If claimants fail to turn up for appointments or to apply for enough jobs, officials effectively fine them by stopping their benefit payments for a minimum of four weeks (around £300). Between 2011 and 2015, almost one in four of all jobseeker’s allowance claimants were sanctioned. In 2015 alone, sanctions led to an estimated £132m in benefits being withheld from some of the UK’s poorest citizens.
Anti-poverty campaigners, food banks, academics and MPs have warned for years that sanctions were dangerous: they can lead to debt and rent arrears, depression, hunger, food bank use, survival crime, destitution and worse. Sanctions, they have pointed out, can be handed out capriciously or cynically to meet jobcentre targets. In some cases, such as that of diabetic former soldier David Clapson, found dead in his flat in 2013, starved and penniless, the potentially lethal consequences of benefit sanctions have seemed incontrovertible.
The Department for Work and Pensions has imperiously dismissed those warnings throughout. It has regularly assured us that sanctions “work”. They provide a deterrent effect to the half-hearted job seeker, and a kick up the backside to the lazy and feckless to make them “focus and get on”, the DWP insists. Sanctions, claimed the former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith in March, were “the reason why we now have the highest employment levels ever in the UK”.
The NAO reveals that those assertions were essentially baseless. The DWP had no clue whether sanctions worked, and zero interest in finding out. When the scope and severity of sanctions were increased in 2012, leading to a rapid rise in the number affected, it had no evidence to justify the change and no idea what the likely effect on claimants would be. It did not know the financial costs of sanctions or the wider knock-on impact on health services, let alone any potential benefits, and actively resisted any attempt by others to find out. Last year the DWP summarily rejected calls from both an all-party committee of MPs and its own social security advisory committee for a formal review of sanctions.