“This research highlights why my private member’s bill to limit the impact of benefit sanctions was so important,” said SNP candidate for Paisley & Renfrewshire South, Mhairi Black, commenting on new research from Glasgow University Urban Researcher Dr David Webster which states that benefit sanctions have heaped more acute pressure on welfare claimants than any policy since the abolition of the workhouse.
This research reveals that benefit sanctions are out of control. Although the research is based under the period of the previous Tory – Lib Dem coalition government, Dr
Webster states that recent statistics continue to cause concern.
His research suggests the number of penalties imposed on benefits claimants in 2013 exceeded fines imposed by courts, which Dr Webster says amounts to a ‘secret penal system’ which lacks the checks and balances of the mainstream criminal justice system.
Dr Webster said by 2013, the Department of Work and Pensions applied more than a million sanctions against those receiving job seekers’ allowance, 32,128 against claimings of employment and support allowance as well as around 44,000 to lone parents receiving income support. In the same year, sheriffs and magistrates in Scotland and the rest of the UK imposed a total of only 849,000 fines, he said.
He claimed this was a particular issue because sanctioned benefit claimants are treated much worse than those fined in the courts. “The scale of penalties is more severe and most sanctions are applied to poor people and involve total loss of benefit income,” he said.
Although hardship payments are available, families and individuals must wait two weeks to make a claim. By which time they can be reduced to destitution. Dr Webster added: “The hardship payment system itself is designed to clean people out of resources: all savings or other sources of assistance must be used up before help is given.”
Unlike the public courts, sanction decisions are opaque, Dr Webster said. “Decisions on guilt are made in secret by officials who have no independent responsibility to act lawfully… “The claimant is not present when the decision of guilt is made and is not legally represented,” he said.
Mhairi Black added:
“This research is invaluable for highlighting the cruel Tory policy of penalising benefit claimants.
“I know from my experience dealing with constituents and the research from my private member’s bill that the sanctions regime can be brutal and unforgiving.
“It is shocking to realise that more penalties have been imposed via benefit sanctions than fines imposed by courts. At least in court it is an open process where you are allowed representation – whereas benefit sanctions are often imposed by anonymous civil servants making judgements on claimants without them have a chance to defend themselves.
“Research like this highlights why we need a more compassionate welfare system, one that supports rather than punishes those in need.”