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Plea for hard facts in benefits review

It is right the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) should review its policy of stopping the benefits of people deemed to have broken job-seeking rules.

The review is needed because there is mounting evidence that the strategy is causing major problems.

The growth in foodbanks is one such symptom. Charities estimate that around 73% of referrals to foodbanks are for people affected by so-called benefit sanctions. The review should consider whether we, as a society, still want a safety net such as the welfare state or whether volunteer action is to pick up the pieces.

It should look at the effectiveness of the sanctions policy. Does it really encourage people back into work, or is it counter-productive to take away the income by which they survive? Is finding work a matter of energy and commitment, or can it thrive on the urgency of poverty and fear?

The review should also look at whether sanctions are the best means to punish wrong-doing in relation to benefits. Prosecutions for benefit fraud are relatively low and some charities believe a lower standard of proof is leading to unfair and arbitrary decisions in some cases.

None of this is to suggest there are not legitimate concerns about welfare dependency. Everyone, including charities such as Citizens' Advice Scotland, who have called for sanctions to be completely rethought agrees that a system is necessary.

Those who do not make any effort to find work, miss appointments, or fail to make themselves job ready should not receive a free ride from the taxpayer. But this review is also needed because there is simply no evidence the current sanctions regime works. A majority of voters approve of cracking down on the benefit bill. These are populist policies.

Yet where is the Government's evidence that this policy will help encourage people back into work? It is not there. Unfortunately, the Coalition Government is using some of the UK's most vulnerable people as guinea pigs to road-test its theories about Britain's dependency culture. This most alarms the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, which has responded to the review with barely disguised incredulity. "We have little confidence in this review," the charities umbrella group says, suggesting welfare reform is driven by ideology and not a genuine attempt to improve the system.

Yes, there is a genuine public concern about excessive spending on the benefit system. But the sums are relative. Taxpayers paid £5bn in subsidies to private rail firms last year, more than the £4.91bn cost of Job Seeker's Allowance. And the £100,000 spent annually on each of a very small number of high-claiming families on benefits was described by Iain Duncan Smith as madness for the taxpayer. Yet he has written off £34bn on failed IT projects to launch his new benefit, universal credit.

So a review of sanctions is needed. But even more badly needed is a truly serious debate, free of populist posturing and focused instead on how much our benefits system should really cost, and what will work to help job seekers live up to the title.

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