DWP docked 35,000 people's benefits at height of coronavirus despite ending sanctions
More than 35,000 people were losing money to benefit sanctions at the height of coronavirus - despite them being halted.
Thousands were still having their payments docked long after new sanctions were suspended for three months due to the pandemic.
When the sanctions ban kicked in on March 30, DWP Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield insisted "folk don’t need to worry" about being penalised.
But because the average sanction lasts 29 days, people who were sanctioned before the cut-off date were still having benefits docked afterwards.
Official figures now show 36,277 Universal Credit claimants lost money to a sanction in April, just when coronavirus peaked in the UK.
And 25,460 lost money to a sanction in May.(Image: PA Archive/PA Images)
That compares to just over 36,000 who lost out on average in each of January, February and March.
“Despite assurances that people shouldn’t worry about being sanctioned during this difficult time, it turns out thousands of people had their benefits docked at the height of the pandemic.
“It is a badge of shame on this government that vulnerable people saw vital payments slashed during their time of need.”
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Sanctions reduce or completely stop benefit payments to people who fail to meet "conditions" - like searching for work or attending an interview.
New sanctions almost entirely stopped for three months from March 30, because people could not search for work during lockdown.
Only 17 Universal Credit claimants were hit with a new sanction in April, compared with almost 11,000 the month before.
The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said some of the 17 were decisions made about a breach the previous month.
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Others were for the small range of sanctions that were allowed to continue - such as leaving a job voluntarily without good reason, or misconduct.
But Tory ministers face anger for resuming sanctions at the start of July, despite a recession and social distancing rules remaining in place.
Work and Pensions Secretary Therese Coffey claimed it was “important” to bring back sanctions and “an essential part of the contract” with benefit claimants.
Meanwhile, the figures show Jobcentres decided to end many of their longest-running benefit sanctions during the peak of coronavirus.
In March, the average person freed from a sanction had been on it for 24 days.
In May, that shot up to 60 days.
More than 1,700 of those released from a sanction in May had been on it for more than six months.
A DWP spokesman said: “We acted swiftly in response to the pandemic, changing conditionality rules so they reflected the reality of people’s lives during lockdown. No Universal Credit sanctions were applied relating to claimant actions in this period.
“The figures for April and May relate to claimant commitments breached before the country went into lockdown and represent a small proportion of the millions of people being supported by Universal Credit."