Scottish Greens: Holyrood has opportunity to curtail benefit sanctions regime

Stuart Rodger

Report urges Scottish Government to adopt policy of non-compliance with the DWP

HOLYROOD should take advantage of new devolved powers to curtail the benefit sanctions regime, a new report has suggested.

The report, commissioned by the Scottish Greens, has suggested that the Scottish Government could exploit a loophole in the powers being transferred to the Scottish Parliament to limit the number of benefit sanctions applied.

Under the current system, if a claimant is deemed by a DWP official to be failing to look for work hard enough, a benefit sanction is applied – meaning their payment is stopped for a period of time, ranging from four weeks to three years, in extreme cases. Critics have suggested this leaves many destitute, and has a detrimental effect on claimants’ mental health.

The call comes as new powers over welfare are set to the come to the Scottish Parliament, including power over Personal Independence Payments and Carer’s Allowance.  The Scottish Government recently launched a consultation on the new powers, saying they wanted to bring fairness and dignity back to the system.

“The Scottish Government could insist that programme providers do not pass information on.” Alison Johnstone MSP

Control over benefit sanctions will still be reserved to Westminster, but the Scottish Government will get control over employment programmes such as the Work Programme, an employability scheme for those who are long-term unemployed.  In Scotland, the Work Programme is currently provided by Igneus and Working Links.

In order for a claimant to be sanctioned, the DWP must be informed by the Work Programme provider that the claimant is not complying with the rules. The report suggests the Scottish Government should follow a policy of non-compliance with the DWP.

The report says: “Whilst the Scotland Act (2016) does not devolve the sanctions system, the operation of that system relies heavily on employment programme providers reporting sanctionable behaviour to the DWP so that they can apply sanctions.”

“Such a move could put approximately £7m back in the hands of some of the poorest citizens in Scotland.”  Patrick Harvie MSP

It continues: “The Scottish Government could therefore oblige Scottish programme providers not to share such information with the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). This would insulate tens of thousands of non-employed Scots from sanctions every year.”

The Scottish Green Party’s social security spokesperson, Alison Johnstone MSP, said: “Our research shows that 80,000 sanctions have been issued to people on employment programmes in Scotland since 2010. Sanctions simply don't work. They do not help people into long-term employment and they clearly contribute to worsening physical and mental health.”

She added: “For the DWP to implement a sanction they need information from the provider of the employment programme. The Scottish Government could insist that programme providers do not pass information on. This already happens in a small way with young people involved in the Sector Based Work Academy, so there's no reason we can't apply the approach more widely.”

“Sanctions too often cause real crisis for families with children.” John Dickie

The sanctions regime has come under significant criticism in recent years, with the Feeding Britain report suggesting it was contributing to the rise in demand for foodbanks. It said: “We heard evidence that the sometimes inconsistent application of sanctions appears to affect particularly vulnerable groups A sanction can leave single claimants with no money at all for weeks, or even months.”

Speaking on behalf of the Child Poverty Action Group (Scotland), director John Dickie said: “Sanctions too often cause real crisis for families with children. Slashing family incomes does nothing to support parents into work or reduce child poverty. It is vital that government at every level looks at how to minimise their imposition and impact.

“Work related benefits and sanctions remain reserved to the UK Government but the devolution of employability programmes does create real opportunities to reduce the risk of sanction through for example minimising the imposition of the arbitrary and inappropriate job seeking tasks that increase the risk of sanction.”

Commenting on the party’s report, Patrick Harvie MSP added: “With the average benefit sanction for JSA recipients being around £530 and an average of 13,000 Scottish benefit recipients being sanctioned as part of employment programmes every year, such a move could put approximately £7m back in the hands of some of the poorest citizens in Scotland.”

Picture courtesy of Andrew_Writer

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