SOCIAL Justice Secretary Alex Neil has called for an urgent investigation into the welfare sanctions postcode lottery scandal and claims that Jobcentre Plus staff are pressurised into stopping benefits of vulnerable Scots, leaving them penniless.

He believes that the way poverty-stricken Scots were being “blatantly” targeted was a “breach of their human rights” and the sanctions system must be halted pending a full probe into the “deeply flawed” system.

Neil said a New Policy Institute (NPI) report which revealed shocking evidence of a postcode lottery in benefit sanctions and reports from Jobcentre Plus staff that they are forced to meet sanction targets was a call to action for every non-Tory in the House of Commons and in the Scottish Parliament.

SNP MP Eilidh Whiteford backed Neil’s demands for an immediate halt to all sanctions in response to concerns that DWP staff are put under pressure to hit targets.

Dr Whiteford has written to Minister for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith saying that a “root and branch” independent review must be carried out immediately following a horrendous catalogue of errors at the Government department.

In recent weeks it has also emerged that the DWP shamelessly fabricated success stories for a leaflet, that half of Jobseeker’s Allowance(JSA) or Employment and Support Allowance ESA) were overturned when reviewed, and now whistleblowers have revealed that staff are under pressure from bosses to impose sanctions.

The NPI statistics show that people claiming Jobseekers Allowance in Dundee were about 50 per cent more likely to be sanctioned than claimants in Glasgow.

People have their benefits stopped or cut for a variety of reasons including being late or not attending Jobcentre meetings and training, or not applying for enough jobs, and they can have their payments stopped for four weeks, or as much as three years, depending on how many times the rules are broken.

The DWP said the sanctions regime is a necessary part of the benefits system, but a committee of MPs has twice called for an inquiry into how they work.

According to analysis by the NPI, the monthly sanction referral rate in Dundee in 2014 was 509, or 12.4 per cent – 4.7 percentage points higher than in Glasgow which was 1,327 or 7.7 per cent.

In Scotland as a whole in 2014, the average monthly sanction rate for those aged under 25 was eight per cent, compared to 3.7 per cent for those aged 25 and over.

The report says the overall referral rate varied from 17 per cent in Clackmannanshire, 16 per cent in Aberdeen City and 15 per cent in Aberdeenshire, to five, four and four per cent in Shetland, Eilean Siar and Orkney respectively.

However, neither Orkney nor Shetland report any referrals other than ones that led to sanctions and Shetland’s sanction rate is actually slightly above the Scotland average.

The next lowest referral rates were in North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire at 8.8 and 7 per cent respectively.

Clackmannanshire and Aberdeenshire had the highest sanction rates – 8.1 and 7.9 per cent – followed by East Renfrewshire (7.8 per cent). Eilian Siarr, Orkney, South Lanarkshire and Highland had the lowest sanction rates, all below four per cent

The report states: “One in six jobseekers in Clackmannanshire, Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen and Angus are referred for a sanction each month, around twice as many as in North Ayrshire, South Lanarkshire and East Ayrshire.

“There is a five-fold ratio between the extremes and a twofold ratio if the extreme half dozen are ignored. It is hard to believe that such ratios can be due to systematic differences in the claimant populations of, say, Angus and East Ayrshire.”

Neil said the Equalities and Human Rights Commission should investigate possible breaches because of the postcode lottery and the way the DWP is leaving people penniless and destitute.

He said: “I personally think this is a breach of human rights because they are driving people into starvation and very often when they go to appeal, they are then lifted but it could take weeks for people to actually get paid out.

“I think it is something the Equalities and Human Rights Commission should investigate because they are leaving people with nothing to live on and it can be for many weeks. The only way these people can avoid starvation is through food banks and borrowing money.”

He called on the Labour party to back SNP MPs for an urgent amendment to the Welfare Bill.

Neil added: “This report is a call to action for every non-Tory in the House of Commons and in the Scottish Parliament to do everything we can and join forces and try and see if we can defeat the Tories with a substantive amendment to the Welfare Bill in the House of Commons because it’s the only way we can put a stop to it.

“We must have a united front, not just in Scotland but across the UK, to try and put a stop to the sanctions. If there is any way in the Parliament at Westminster we can get the votes we would certainly do what we can because they are absolutely vile in every aspect.”

SNP Social Justice and Welfare spokesperson Dr Eilidh Whiteford MP, said there was clearly a culture of pressure within the DWP which forces staff to refer people for sanctions for fear of retribution.

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