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Churches back MPs’ call for review of benefits sanctions

27 March 2015

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Campaigner: the Revd Paul Nicolson speaks at a protest outside the Department for Work and Pensions in London, on Thursday of last week

Campaigner: the Revd Paul Nicolson speaks at a protest outside the Department for Work and Pensions in London, on Thursday of last week

A GROUP of Churches has welcomed the call from a committee of MPs for a review of how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) uses benefits sanctions.

The Church in Wales, together with the United Reformed, Baptist, and Methodist Churches, and the Church of Scotland issued a joint statement on Tuesday approving the conclusions of the parliamentary Work and Pensions Select Committee, which echoed their own report on sanctions, published earlier this month ( News, 6 March).

The committee's report recommended that the DWP, as well as starting an independent review of when and how benefits are temporarily cut as a sanction, should also take "urgent steps to ensure that a more common-sense approach is set out". They also call for a halt on sanctions for those receiving in- work benefits, which is currently being piloted in some parts of the UK.

The Churches' statement noted how their own report, Time to Rethink Benefit Sanctions, found that seven million weeks' worth of benefit cuts were made in sanctions in 2013/14. The public-issues policy adviser to the Methodist Church, Paul Morrison, said: "The select committee report describes a system that is broken and needs urgent review.

"Churches are often at the forefront of helping people who have been sanctioned, and who are in desperate need of food, support, and advice. It is unacceptable that vulnerable people can be left with no means of support as punishment for often very minor mistakes."

He said that the current system of sanctions left people feeling demoralised and ashamed, and undermined the dignity of people "made in the image of God".

The director of Church Action on Poverty, which also contributed to the report, Niall Cooper, said that the new Government elected in May must ensure that the welfare system was a safety net, and not a means of making people "destitute".

The MPs' report said that the DWP should make it clear to those providing benefits and assessing claims that they have some discretion in applying sanctions; for instance, where a claimant failed to meet a condition because of extenuating circumstances.

"We believe that it is important that the Government conduct evaluations to enhance the evidence base in this policy area, to demonstrate that the use of sanctions is not purely punitive," the report concludes.

The Bishop of Truro, the Rt Revd Tim Thornton, submitted evidence to the committee with his co-chair on the parliamentary inquiry into food poverty, Frank Field MP. Their submission said that through their own inquiry, they had heard evidence that claimants felt trapped in a "one strike and you're out" system.

"We were told, through our evidence, of a degree of inconsistency and, at times, unfairness in the application of sanctions. We found that, for example, even if someone has applied for enough jobs to fulfil their requirements, they may be sanctioned for having filled in the forms incorrectly. This is particularly unfair on claimants who are barely literate."

Mr Field, responding to the publication of the committee's report, said that the next Government should introduce a "yellow card" warning for a claimant's first offence. The research in the Churches' sanctions report suggests that the most common cause of a sanction is arriving late, or not turning up to a Jobcentre appointment.

It also found that, each day, 100 of those receiving Employment and Support Allowance because of a long-term mental-health problem were being sanctioned.

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