MINISTERS refused to rethink “inhumane” benefits sanctions yesterday, after North-East MPs lined up to protest they were causing widespread suffering.

A Commons debate heard stark warnings that benefits were being stripped from vulnerable people unfairly, leaving them without money for food or heating.

And ministers were accused of breaking their own rules by docking money from claimants who miss appointments because they are bereaved, sick, or have childcare responsibilities.

Among the examples given were:

* A Hartlepool woman who broke an appointment because she was “burying her grandfather and had been at his deathbed for week”.

* A Sunderland man who was told “an asthma attack is not a good reason for missing an appointment”.

* A Middlesbrough woman who forgot an interview because it was “the day her father died”.

* A man in Bishop Auckland constituency who was a collecting a sick daughter from school and was accused of inventing a “fictional child”.

Julie Elliott, the Labour MP for Sunderland, said: “For people to be treated in this inhumane way is wrong.”

The debate was staged on the day a Commons committee began its investigation into the explosion in the number of benefit sanctions, since the Coalition launched a crackdown.

It heard evidence that the department for work and pensions (DWP) had failed to carry out research on whether sanctions were encouraging people into work, the black economy - or to food banks.

Matthew Oakley, an independent assessor for the DWP, echoed North-East MPs by calling for a wide-ranging review of their impact.

And Professor David Webster, of the University of Glasgow, warned they had become “a parallel secret penal system”.

But, in the debate, work minister Esther McVey infuriated the region’s MPs by refusing to discuss whether the criteria for imposing sanctions were fair.

However, the minister denied her department deliberately inflames talk of “scroungers”, saying: “I have never put forward a story like that and I never would.”

But Helen Goodman, the Bishop Auckland MP and Labour’s work spokeswoman, said rules were being broken “to massage down level of unemployment in our region”.

She said: “At any one moment in time, 30,000 people are being sanctioned in our region.”

The DWP has insisted that benefits are docked - for up to 13 weeks, for a first offence – because claimants miss job centre appointments or deliberately avoid finding a job.

But only 0.7 per cent of welfare spending is lost to fraud, the debate heard - in comparison with 1.3 per cent lost to overpayment because of DWP mistakes.