Minister concerned by benefit sanctions increase

Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty Lesley Griffiths has expressed concern about the steep increase in welfare sanctions imposed on many potentially vulnerable people in Wales.

Speaking in the Senedd, the Minister said the Department for Work and Pensions had significantly increased the frequency and severity of benefit sanctions.

This increase was especially apparent for those claiming the sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). She continued to say the number of these sanctions eventually being overturned raised serious questions about the way they are applied.

Latest data shows the number of sanctions applied to people in Wales who are claiming ESA is up from around 150 in June 2013, to nearly 400 in June 2014. A quarter of ESA sanctions applied under the revised regime in Wales have been reviewed, with nearly half being overturned in favour of the claimant.

Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Lesley Griffiths, said:

“Make no mistake, the Welsh Government believes welfare payments should come with responsibilities. This is important in ensuring we have a welfare support system which works fairly for all.

“However, the reality is the UK Government’s changes are risking the safety of vulnerable people. They are squeezing the income of families and individuals who are already struggling to make ends meet.

“One of the groups worst hit are working-age disabled households. Not only are many of these people waiting months for decisions on new disability benefits, they may also be subject to sanctions, which could put their well-being at risk.

“The number of people in Wales having their ESA sanctioned more than doubled over the past year – this is concerning. With nearly half of reviewed sanctions found in favour of the claimant, there are serious questions the DWP needs to answer about the way they are being applied.”

While the Welsh Government cannot fill the huge financial gap created by Whitehall, it is doing all it can to alleviate some of the worst impacts for people in Wales.

It is continuing to focus on boosting skills and employment through initiatives such as Jobs Growth Wales which has supported over 16,000 job opportunities for young people aged 16-24 and Lift, which aims to help 5,000 long-term unemployed people into jobs or training. This year, the Welsh Government also made £2 million available to support indpendent front-line advice services which are helping people cope with issues related to welfare benefits, debt, housing and discrimination.

The Welsh Government has also provided £20 million of additional funding in 2013-14 to build one and two bedroom affordable homes to help mitigate the effects of the ‘Bedroom Tax’, while over 17,000 people have been awarded a total of nearly £4.9 million since April this year through the Welsh Government’s Discretionary Assistance Fund.

The Minister’s comments formed part of a wider debate on the UK Government’s welfare reform. She continued:

“I will continue to challenge the UK Government and press for a just welfare system. In the meantime, we are left to pick up some of the pieces left in their wake.

“We should all be concerned by the impact of the changes to welfare and their implication for individuals, families and communities. However, we will continue to work with our partners to help people manage and prepare for change, and mitigate the worst impacts on people here in Wales.”