'Limited evidence' for benefit sanctions, NAO says
Benefit sanctions leading to "hardship, hunger and depression" are being imposed on people despite "limited evidence" on how well they work, the National Audit Office says.
The public spending watchdog also said use of the sanctions "varies substantially" between jobcentres.
Sanctions can be imposed on people who fail to comply with conditions attached to the benefits they receive.
The government said improvements had been made to the system.
An estimated 400,000 sanctions were imposed against people on out-of-work benefits last year.
They are used when people do not comply with conditions - like attending jobcentre appointments - and involve the payments being reduced or stopped.
Critics say sanctions cause "severe financial hardship" and MPs have previously demanded an inquiry into how they are applied - but the Department for Work and Pensions says they are an important part of the benefits system.
It says the deterrent effect of sanctions will encourage people to comply with their conditions.
But the NAO said: "The department has limited evidence on how people respond to the possibility of receiving a sanction, or how large this deterrent effect is in practice."
Use of sanctions, it said, is "linked as much to management priorities and local staff discretion as it is to claimants' behaviour".
The NAO said use of sanctions "varies substantially" between the different providers that are in charge of running the government's welfare-to-work programme.
Some providers make more than twice as many sanction referrals as other providers supporting similar people in the same area, it said.
Sanctions, which have been used in their current form since 1996, vary in length, the NAO said, adding that they "reduce support to people, sometimes leading to hardship, hunger and depression".
For example, a jobless recipient can lose £300 of benefits if they get a four-week sanction.
It said the government did not track the costs and benefits of sanctions, but spent an estimated £30-£50m a year applying them and about £200m monitoring conditions attached to benefits.
Last year it estimated it withheld £132m in benefits.
It said the DWP had taken steps to reduce the number of errors, but said the department "needs to do more than react to problems" and that it "cannot conclude that the department is achieving value for money".
Labour MP Meg Hillier, who chairs the public accounts committee, said: "Benefit sanctions punish some of the poorest people in the country. But despite the anxiety and misery they cause, it seems to be pot luck who gets sanctioned."
A DWP spokesman said: "Sanctions are an important part of our benefits system and it is right that there is a system in place for tackling those few who do not fulfil their commitment to find work.
"This report fails to recognise the improvements we have made to sanctions, particularly to help those who are vulnerable. The number of sanctions has fallen, and they are only ever used as a last resort after people fail to do what is asked of them in return for benefits."