Campaigners gathered outside the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) in London and job centres across the country on Thursday 30 March as part of a national day of action to stop benefit sanctions.
Led by members of Britain's biggest union, Unite, the protesters reiterated their call for the government to stop its 'cruel and ineffective' benefit sanctions regime.
Since the Tories first came into power in May 2010 over 3 million individuals have been referred for a sanction 8 million times, says the union. Over 318,000 people have had their welfare payments cut or stopped without warning in the last year, affecting thousands of children and dependent adults. Sanctions are given for reasons such as missing or being late for appointments with the job centre, or being too sick to 'actively seek work'. As a result, many families have been plunged into poverty, unable to heat their homes or even eat. 'How is this meant to help prepare people for work?' asks Unite.
Liane Groves, head of Unite Community said: "The government really needs to stop the cruel use of benefit sanctions which are destroying lives. The stress they are putting on people, and the effect on their children and wider families, is unacceptable. We should all be shocked.
"The government has shown no evidence that benefit sanctions are working. The opposite is true, when people are in survival mode, fighting to put food on their family's table or stressing how they will pay their bills means their mental and physical heath suffers and finding work is so much harder.
"Rather than punishing the unemployed for not having a job the government should be helping people get jobs. People need a hand up – not a slap down."
According to the Trussell Trust, one of the main providers of food banks, more than 500,000 three day emergency food parcels were distributed to people in crisis in the first half of 2016/17 – over 188,500 to children. The most common reason given for people turning to the food bank charity was problems and delays with their benefits.
Unite is also concerned that if people do not appeal against their first sanction, if they are sanctioned again, they will be sanctioned for longer - leaving people without money for three months or up to three years depending on the level of 'offence'.
Black and minority ethnic defendants are more likely to go to prison for certain types of crimes, according to a landmark review which shows a wide disproportionality in the criminal justice system.
The review, conducted by David Lammy MP, showed that the number of black women receiving custodial sentences at Crown Courts for drug offences was almost double the numbers of white women sentenced to custody for similar offences (227 black women for every 100 white females). For black men, the figure was 141 for every 100 white men.
David Lammy MP said: "These emerging findings raise difficult questions about whether ethnic minority communities are getting a fair deal in our justice system. We need to fully understand why, for example, ethnic minority defendants are more likely to receive prison sentences than white defendants."
Other notable findings included figures showing that BAME defendants, especially young black males, are more likely than their white counterparts to be tried at Crown Court. Also, more than double the numbers of black men as against white males were convicted at Magistrates' Court for sexual offences.
The study was commissioned in January of this year by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. His successor, Theresa May, who has launched a government audit to tackle racial disparities in public service outcomes, says: "If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white".
David Lammy MP said "I do not believe that all the causes of over-representation lie in the Criminal Justice System, or that all the answers do either. However, we must make sure that the system is scrupulously fair and that it does everything it can to help offenders turn their lives around.
"These are complex issues and I will dig deeper in the coming months to establish whether bias is a factor."
His further inquiry will be supported by an advisory group which includes, among others, Trevor Phillips, the founding chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Dame Anne Owers DBE, a former Chief Inspector of Prisons. The resultant review will include recommendations on how to address the issues raised and will be presented formally to the government in the spring.
A Tory MP says judges should be held accountable for giving too lenient sentences to offenders who then continue to commit more serious offences.
Philip Davies, MP for Shipley in West Yorkshire, says judges should be made to face up to the consequences of their decisions.
He told fellow MPs in the Commons: "It should be clear to many that where a judge consistently allows offenders to avoid prison and those offenders go on to make others suffer as a result of their continuing crime spree, there should be accountability for the judge," he said.
"And there should really be consequences for that judge as well. In particular where they don't hand down custodial sentences which would be perfectly justifiable and possibly even expected, and particularly when the offender goes on to reoffend."
Mr Davies also suggested that longer prison sentences could help reduce reoffending and called for an end to early releases.
MPs are urging for reductions in National Insurance contributions to reward businesses willing to employ people with a prison record.
The move was made by the Work and Pensions committee in a bid to reduce re-offending, which costs the criminal justice system £15 billion a year.
The incentives were proposed in response to a recent report, in which 50 per cent of employers admitted they would be wary of giving a job to someone who had been in prison. The majority of these said they feared that an employee with a criminal record might either prove unreliable or would pose a risk to the company's image.
The committee also recommended other measures such as practical guidance on spent and unspent convictions and challenging misconceptions.
Committee chairman Labour MP Frank Field said: "We have known for decades that finding a home and finding a job are absolutely central to preventing re-offending, which costs the criminal justice system alone £15 billion a year.
"That is without even beginning to factor in the costs of benefits, healthcare and the human cost of people struggling to reintegrate into society and going back to a life a crime.
"Former offenders who have served their sentence and want to change their lives deserve a second chance. Prisons, the Government and employers all have a responsibility, and an interest, to help them take it."