A homelessness charity has revealed that benefit claimants in Aberdeenshire are the most likely in Scotland to have their benefits withdrawn.
Job Seekers Allowance claimants in Aberdeenshire are at the sharp end of a social security system that has this week been branded by UK Homelessness charity, Crisis, as "cruel", "flawed" and "punitive."
One in ten people who claim benefits in the area have had their benefits withdrawn for failing to meet conditions laid down by Department of Work and Pensions staff.
Yet the charity has published a new report which shows these sanctions are not apparently being applied in the same way to job seekers elsewhere in Scotland.
In Aberdeen city itself, only one in twenty people are penalised by sanctions. Meanwhile, in the Western Isles, the sanction rate is less than two in 100.
As well as highlighting apparent inconsistencies in the government's approach to dishing out benefit sanctions, the Crisis report also indicates that homeless people may be disproportionately affected by sanctions.
The charity estimates that a third of homeless people may have been sanctioned at some point, a punishment which it claims has a disastrous effect on people "trying to rebuild their lives." And on this basis it goes on to argues that the government should do more to take account of the difficult circumstances homeless people find themselves in.
But sanctions are not just a problem for people who are already homeless.
The report also suggests that sanctions have the effect of "kicking people whilst they are down" and increase people’s risk of becoming homeless. The moves can leave people on the breadline struggling with debt and without enough money for food, rent or heating.
The findings of the Crisis report echo claims made by the Trussel Trust last year. The foodbank charity has seen demand in Aberdeen grow by 200% in recent years, coinciding with increases in the numbers of claimants in the area having their benefit cash cut.
Jon Sparkes, Chief Executive of Crisis, said: “The Government has assured us that benefit sanctions are only for those who refuse to play by the rules. But evidence is mounting of a punitive and deeply flawed regime.
“Sanctions are cruel and can leave people at severe risk of homelessness – cold, hungry and utterly destitute. At the same time, people who are already homeless can struggle to meet the conditions of the regime. Many are trying to rebuild their lives, and losing the support of benefits can be disastrous.
"This isn’t helping people into work. It’s kicking them when they’re down.
“We want our next Government to commit to an urgent, wide-ranging review looking at the appropriateness and effectiveness of sanctions, especially for people at risk of or experiencing homelessness.”
Report author, Dr Kesia Reeve of Sheffield Hallam University, added that she found the wide variation found across the country "startling."
She said: "This evidence review raises serious questions about the appropriateness, effectiveness, and consequences of benefit sanctions, particularly for homeless people.
"The evidence at present is limited, but points clearly to a system that is more punitive than it is supportive and that fails to take into account the barriers homeless people face.
“The scale and magnitude of sanctions is startling, as is the wide variation found across the country."
But a government spokesperson hit back at the criticism, and claimed that the evidence in the latest Crisis report did not necessarily support the claims the charity had made.
In a statement a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said that the report took no account of factors that might explain the variation in sanction rates across different areas such as claimant count characteristics and local labour market conditions, and added: "All decisions are made by an independent decision maker regardless of geography."
The spokesperson also said that changes have since been made. They said the report, "fails to recognise that we have already changed the rules to give homeless people time to arrange accommodation before they have to look for work. Changes which Crisis themselves have welcomed. It also fails to mention that the number of sanctions is falling.
“The truth is that every day Jobcentre Plus advisers are helping people into work, with a record number of people now in jobs. Sanctions are only used as a last resort for the tiny minority who refuse to take up the support which is on offer.”
And according to the government, there has been a fall in the number of sanctions in Scotland, compared with the previous year. Between October 2013 and September 2014, there were 65,577 sanctions. This compares to approximately 78,094 in the same period the previous year.
The national picture
Map supplied by Crisis