Amber Rudd reveals major curb to controversial benefits sanction regime
Amber Rudd today announced a major rollback on benefits sanctions and said she hoped any damage done to the Tory brand by the controversial regime could be reversed.
The Work and Pensions Secretary said the maximum sanction for those who breach benefits rules will be reduced from three years to six months by the end of 2019.
She said the longest punishments the DWP has been slapping on some claimants “ultimately undermine our aim to help people into work” and said she could go even further in reforming the regime.
Claimants agree to a contract of responsibility when they sign up for benefits and can face sanctions if they breach the terms - for example by failing to look for work or refusing to take part in an employment scheme.
Charity groups have reported that their use can leave people in great financial hardship and forced to turn to foodbanks.
More than 16,000 sanctions were levied on Job Seekers Allowance claimants in 2018. Only a small number will last for the maximum time, but the Government does not reveal how many.
The average sanction for Universal Credit lasts one month, according to recent government statistics, while only 10% of sanctions for sickness benefit claimants lasted more than six months.
At a speech in central London today, Ms Rudd said: “While necessary for the integrity of the system, I believe long financial sanctions become much less valuable over time, and ultimately undermine our aim to help people into work.
“That is why we will reduce the length of the maximum sanction to six months to make them more proportionate, and why I have already launched an evaluation to consider further improvements we can make.”
She added: "It seems to be a very important signal I hope that I am sending out that we don’t need to have a sanction regime that is covered over six months."
Asked by PoliticsHome about the damage to the Tory brand from the sanctions regime, Ms Rudd said: “If there has been damage I hope we can reverse that.”
Sanctions have been used in their current form since 1996 but were massively ramped up when Iain Duncan Smith was Work and Pensions Secretary in 2012.
Ms Rudd also announced that people currently in work will be able to turn to Job Centres to help them boost their careers and increase their pay under DWP plans.
Responding to the move, Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Margaret Greenwood MP said: “Six months is still a very long time to leave someone without any income at all. It is not just the individual who is affected, but their family too.
“There is clear evidence that sanctions and excessive conditionality do not help people into sustained employment. They also cause stress and anxiety for many and are one of the key reasons that people ask for help at food banks.
“Labour will scrap the Conservatives’ sanctions regime for good. We will deliver personalised employment support and invest in skills and training to create the decent jobs that people need.”
'HOLD OUR NERVE' ON BREXIT
Elsewhere, Ms Rudd dodged questions over whether she might throw her hat into the ring for the Tory leadership when Theresa May steps down.
But she said the party should “hold our nerve” and allow the Prime Minister to deliver the first stage of Brexit as she has long promised to do.
She also said the public should avoid the “extremes” on offer at the upcoming European Parliament elections, and said those Tory MPs who were refusing to campaign during the run-up to the vote were “making a mistake”.