THE cases of a Hartlepool benefits claimant whose money was cut because she missed an appointment due to roadworks and another who did not turn up for an appointment which had been cancelled have been raised in Parliament.
MP Iain Wright was speaking in a Commons debate on the effects of the DWP’s benefits clampdown on claimants across the North East, prompted by Newcastle Central MP Chi Onwurah.
Mr Wright said he accepted the need to tackle fraud, but the system had to take account of people who had genuine reasons for falling foul of the rules.
“Most people would accept the principle that if people flagrantly and persistently fail to adhere to mutually accepted requirements, they should face consequences,” he said.
“However, I have noticed a large increase in the number of sanctions imposed, often for a first or light transgression, and often with no regard to the context.”
Cases of people who had seen their benefits suspended unreasonably included:
l A man who realised he had missed an appointment, contacted the Jobcentre immediately and went in the next day, only to be informed by post that his benefits were being cut for a month;
l A woman sanctioned because she was late after her bus got delayed by roadworks in the centre of Hartlepool;
l A woman who was told her appointment for a work capability assessment had been cancelled who was then sanctioned for failing to attend;
l And a woman who was sanctioned for a month because she missed an appointment to attend her grandfather’s funeral.
“In all those cases, and in others, I have been able to get the sanctions overturned; but that itself raises some issues,” said Mr Wright.
“Is it an efficient use of taxpayer resources to apply a sanction, only for staff time to be employed in overturning it? How robust, efficient and effective is the process if that continues to be the case?”
The culture in JobCentres needed to change, he said: “Front-line staff do not have any flexibility to determine whether a benefit claimant has failed to comply with a requirement. They have to see things in black and white and they cannot provide personalised support.
“The system is geared not to help individuals, but merely to process them.
“Claimants can suffer appallingly as a result of their treatment.”
The system was also failing to help workers whose traditional skills were not suited to the modern jobs market.
“The JobCentre is simply not interested in helping them secure a new job,” said Mr Wright.
“Through its indifference and latent hostility, it is consigning my constituents to the scrap heap long before their time.”
He highlighted the case of a former factory worker who had been told to apply for benefits on-line despite not owning a computer and never having used one.
“There are many people like my constituent in Hartlepool and the North East. The digital divide is creating social exclusion that is affecting the most vulnerable people,” said Mr Wright.
“My constituents deserve better, as do many others in the North East and elsewhere.
“They are treated shabbily and with contempt.”
Work minister Esther McVey defended the Government’s record and told the debate the sanction rate for Jobseeker’s Allowance was between five and six per cent a month and less than one per cent for Employment and Support Allowance.
“In the past year, the number of people sanctioned actually decreased,” she said.