Hundreds of people in Bristol West have contacted me about benefit sanctions, and I share your concern about the way the Government's sanctions regime is currently operating and the devastating impact that excessive sanctioning is having on many people and their families.
The sanctions regime has become maliciously and unnecessarily punitive and that there has been a tenfold increase in the number of people being sanctioned. As organisations such as the Joint Public Issues Team (JPIT) and Church Action on Poverty have emphasised, this is particularly affecting some of the most vulnerable people in society - those with mental health problems, the homeless and around 100,000 children.
I believe the Government's approach to sanctions has been more about getting people off benefits than helping them into work. As a result, excessive sanctions have fuelled the extraordinary increase we have seen in the number of people who are using food banks. Indeed, the Trussell Trust, the UK's largest provider of food banks, has stated that increasingly harsh sanctions are one of the main reasons that more and more people are having to rely on emergency food aid.
As you know, the Work and Pensions Select Committee recently recommended that the Government establish a broad independent review of the sanctions regime to look at whether sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately. I hope the Government will consider the Committee's findings and look at what more can be done to address the very serious concerns that are being expressed about the current sanctioning regime.
In particular, I believe there is a strong case to abolish targets for sanctions within Jobcentre Plus, to ensure that hardship payments are available more swiftly and to limit how long people can wait when they challenge a sanctioning decision.
I can assure you that I will continue to follow this issue closely and press for much greater action to tackle the causes of food poverty.