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1 July 2014, 05:00
Out of work Scots had their benefits sanctioned on almost 900,000 occasions last year, a new report has claimed.
A total of 898,000 sanctions were applied to claims for jobseeker's allowance (JSA) and employment support allowance (ESA) during 2013, according to Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), with 871,000 of the penalties being applied to claims for JSA.
The advice charity is now calling for urgent changes to be made to the system, which cuts payments if people fail to meet certain requirements such as not attending jobcentre meetings or not doing enough to find work.
One man in the east of Scotland had his benefits reduced to about £11 a week after sanctions were applied when he failed to attend an interview with a work programme, despite producing a doctor's certificate to say he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was not fit to travel, the report stated.
It also revealed that a survey of Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) advisers found 94% had seen an increase in people seeking help in the last two years because of benefit sanctions.
Meanwhile, 97% of advisers said people reported going without gas or electricity, or skipping meals, after being sanctioned, with 94% saying people were requesting food parcels.
The CAS report said: "During 2013, nearly 900,000 sanctions were applied to jobseeker's allowance (JSA) and employment and support allowance (ESA) claimants. The rate of JSA sanctions has more than doubled since 2010.
"This has resulted in a significant rise in the number of sanctions cases coming in to bureaux in Scotland. Client cases and adviser experiences suggest that there are many problems in the sanctions regime."
It added: "Not only are the numbers and rates of sanctions increasing, but towards the end of 2012 the penalties associated with sanctions also became significantly more severe. The first level JSA sanction has risen from one week to one month, and the maximum duration of a sanction rose from six months to three years."
The report continued: "The result of being sanctioned is that claimants have no money for food, heating or other living essentials. For some bureaux clients this is putting tenancies and debt repayment arrangements at risk as well. This is causing extreme stress for some claimants.
"Bureaux are seeing the impact through increased numbers of claimants coming with benefits issues, and increased demand for food parcels.
"Overall, we believe the purpose and functioning of the sanctions regime needs to be publicly reviewed."
In the survey, 60% of CAB advisers reported that people had not been told they were being sanctioned prior to their benefits money being cut.
In addition, 97% of advisers said they had seen cases where penalties had been applied without taking into account reasons people had for not complying with benefit requirements.
CAS is calling for the sanctions system to be changed to ensure people only lose a proportion of their benefits, rather than the entire amount, saying: "At the very least people should be able to eat and heat their homes."
It is also urging the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to ensure people are informed in writing when sanctions are being considered and are put in place, with the advice charity saying there should be at least 10 working days' notice before a sanction is applied.
CAS chief executive Margaret Lynch said: "I hope this report will prove to be a stark warning about the changes that urgently need to be made to the sanctions regime, and show why CAS will continue to campaign for those changes on behalf of the citizens of Scotland.
"Being sanctioned means your benefit money is stopped. From a minimum of a week to as long as three years. That is the money that you live on. The money that you use to heat your home, feed and clothe yourself and your family, pay your bills, pay for travel, to get to the jobcentre and to look for work.
"That is the reality faced by many of the clients CAB see every day. For some they don't know why, for others they may know why but it was due to unavoidable circumstances. Circumstances such as being unable to access or use computers or missing appointments they had not been notified for, or because they didn't receive a letter. Others simply don't understand a complex sanctions regime which is not communicated clearly or simply. The result though is that people are left bereft of their income and not sure where to turn."
A DWP spokesman said: "The truth is that every day, Jobcentre Plus advisers are successfully helping people off benefits and into work so they can secure their future and we have seen that in the last year alone, employment in Scotland is up 48,000.
"Sanctions are only used as a last resort, but it's only right that people claiming benefits should do everything they can to find work, if they are able. We make it clear to people at the start of their claim what the rules are and that they risk losing their benefits if they don't play by them.
"The benefits system is there as a safety net for people at times of need and supports millions of people who are on low incomes or unemployed. People who are in genuine need can apply for hardship payments. If someone disagrees with a decision made on their claim, they can appeal."
Labour MSP Michael McMahon, convener of Holyrood's Welfare Reform Committee, said: "As our own report concluded in June, there has to be a change of approach when it comes to sanctions.
"It is not acceptable to punish people and push them into a cycle of decline for things often beyond their control. People have to be supported by the system, not pressed down further.
"We've made it clear we think a review is long overdue and urgently needed before more people are pushed beyond the point of no return."
SNP MSP Kevin Stewart said: "This report sets out the appalling scale of just how often benefit sanctions are being applied in Scotland and the genuine hardship that they cause. When sanctions are being applied with this degree of frequency the system is clearly broken.
"The severe penalties that are being applied have been a key factor in the use of foodbanks increasing by 400% in the last year alone.
"Instead of this nasty and vindictive approach to poorer people being applied by the Westminster Government, we need the opportunity to make our own decisions on tax and welfare.
"Scotland is brimming with resources and talent - and is richer per head than the UK, France and Japan - but while it is tied to the Westminster system the most vulnerable people in society are forced to use food banks. With a Yes vote in September, we will gain the tools we need to build a fairer welfare system that reflects the values of people in Scotland."