Last October, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) agreed to trial a less aggressive approach to sanctions, which included the issuing of warnings instead of immediate benefit sanctions when a claimant breaches the conditions imposed on them for the first time. Iain Duncan Smith had proposed the idea in response to sustained criticism that sanctions are often applied unfairly, that they ultimately cause severe hardship, they are a barrier to employment rather than providing an incentive for work, and are costing more to administer than they actually save.
Last year, David Gauke admitted at the Conservative’s annual conference that the system of benefit sanctions often fails to work and can cause harm. He said he would to try to find a way to make the sanctions system less damaging to people, particularly those with mental health conditions. The announcement of the trial soon afterwards seemed to demonstrate the Department for Work and Pension’s (DWP) commitment to learning from feedback and using evidence to make positive changes.
However, the Department’s commitment to the trial is now being called into question, following Esther McVey’s appointment as Gauke’s successor.
Some of the widely criticised sanction decisions include people being sanctioned for missing jobcentre appointments because they are ill, or had to attend a job interview, or people sanctioned for not looking for work because they had already secured a job due to start in a week’s time. In one case, a man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and so failed to complete the assessment.
Welfare was originally designed to safeguard people experiencing hardship from absolute poverty. Now the Government uses sanctions to create hardship as a punishment for non-compliance with rigid conditionality criteria that doesn’t permit mitigation for someone experiencing a heart attack, or for someone being late for a meeting with a job coach.
Last March, the Work and Pensions Committee called for an independent inquiry into the way that sanctions operated, for the second time in a year. The committee report at the time had warned that the sanctions regime appeared to be “purely punitive”.
In August 2015, the DWP was caught making up quotes from supposed “benefit claimants” saying that sanctions had actually helped them. The Department later admitted the quotes were fabricated and withdrew the leaflet, claiming they were for “illustrative purposes only”.
This deceit came to light because of a response to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from Welfare Weekly which led the DWP to withdraw the leaflet featuring fictional case studies. It’s particularly damning that the Department can present no real cases studies that support the use of sanctions and their claims that they are effective and necessary.
Sanctioning a claimant who is single and without dependants can often have implications for other family members, causing hardship for others – for example younger siblings of JSA claimants who are living in their parental home. It is under-acknowledged that when a claimant is sanctioned, the loss of benefits may affect low-income families rather than individuals alone.
It was hoped that the change proposed by Duncan Smith and Gauke would soften some of the severe hardship caused by sanctions. Although Conservative ministers have claimed that sanctions ensure that people are compliant in their commitment to look for work, in practice a very high proportion of benefit sanctions challenged at independent appeal are overturned, because they have been unfairly or unreasonably applied. In 2014 the DWP released figures which showed that 58 per cent of people seeking to overturn sanctions were successful – up from 20 per cent before 2010.
The introduction of less aggressive sanctions – which involves a system of warnings and a period of dialogue between claimant and the DWP to ascertain reasons for possible breaches to the claimant commitment, exploring possible mitigating circumstances – was also one of five recommendations made in last February’s report by the public accounts committee (PAC) on benefits sanctions, all of which have been accepted by ministers, according to a document sent by the Treasury to the committee earlier this month.
Concerns expressed in the report are that benefit sanctions affect a large number of people, leading to hardship and undermining efforts to find work. Around a quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them. Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead to rent arrears and homelessness. The consequences of sanctions on people can be serious so they should be used “very carefully”. However, sanctions are imposed for “honest mistakes”. Citizens Advice (CAB) highlighted the need for flexibility for people who are trying their best.
Other concerns stated in the report are that sanctions are imposed inconsistently on claimants by different jobcentres and providers, the Department does not understand the wider effects of sanctions and the Department’s data systems are not good enough to provide routine understanding of what effect sanctions have on claimants’ employment prospects. In other words, it’s a policy applied without adequate justification or evidence of its efficacy.
This echoes much of what the National Audit Office (NAO) said in their report on benefit sanctions in 2016. Their report, which has also been cited as a source by the PAC, said the DWP is not doing enough to find out how sanctions affect people on benefits, and concluded that it is likely that management focus and local work coach discretion have had a substantial influence on whether or not people are sanctioned.
The NAO report recommended that the DWP carries out a wide-ranging review of benefit sanctions, particularly as it introduces further changes to labour market support such as Universal Credit. The NAO found that the previous government increased the scope and severity of sanctions in 2012 and recognised that these changes would affect claimants’ behaviour in ways that were “difficult to predict.”
Benefits ensure that people are able to meet their basic needs. Welfare covers the costs of food, fuel and shelter. It’s a safeguard to prevent absolute poverty. That was its original purpose when it was introduced. It is difficult to imagine how removing the means that people have of meeting their basic survival needs can possibly motivate them to find work. Comprehensive historical research shows that when people cannot meet their basic biological needs, their pressing cognitive priority is simply survival. In other words, when people are hungry and facing destitution, addressing those fundamental needs becomes a significant barrier to addressing their psychosocial needs such as seeking employment.
Welfare rights advisers on the rightsnet online forum, and from Buckinghamshire Disability Service have voiced their concerns that the DWP has decided not to carry out the less aggressive sanctions warning trial after all, because of “competing priorities in the Parliamentary timetable”. This government decision was included on page 139 of the latest Treasury Minutes Progress Report, published last month, which describes progress on implementing those PAC recommendations that have been accepted by the government. There was no public announcement of the governments’ intentions.
The progress report is dated 25 January, nonetheless, a DWP spokeswoman has insisted that the decision to abandon the sanctions trial had been taken before the appointment of Esther McVey as the new work and pensions secretary on 8 January.
She said: “The decision not to undertake a trial was taken at the end of 2017 – before Esther McVey took up her position as secretary of state.
“As you have read, introducing the trial through legislative change cannot be secured within a reasonable timescale.
“But we are keeping the spirit of the recommendation in mind in our thinking around future sanctions policy.
“To keep the sanctions system clear, fair and effective we keep the policies and processes under continuous review.”
The decision last October to trial handing out warnings prior to implementing sanctions was welcomed by many campaigners, disabled activists, academics and anti-austerity protesters.
It had come only weeks after the UN’s committee on the rights of persons with disabilities (UNCRPD) published their inquiry report, which found that the UK government’s welfare reforms “systematically” violate the rights of disabled persons..
The UN committee recommeded that the government reviewed “the conditionality and sanction regimes” linked to employment and support allowance (ESA), the out-of-work disability benefit, and “tackle the negative consequences on the mental health and situation” of disabled people.
Gauke had previously acknowledged that sanctions cause harm, and had voiced a commitment to amend the severity of welfare sanctions. The change in direction by the Government is thought by some campaigners to be directly linked to the return of Esther McVey as a Department for Work and Pensions minister.
A PAC spokesperson said: “The committee has not yet considered its course of action.”
However, sanctions are not compatible with our human rights framework or democracy: “A legal right to a basic income necessary to live with dignity is rooted in inalienable human rights. These rights should be properly enshrined in UK constitutional laws and systems of governance. Currently the poorest 10% of families (about 6 million people) live on £40 per week after tax. It is utterly unacceptable to further reduce this tiny income to zero for any reason. As it stands [welfare] conditionality has opened the door to injustice and cruelty“ (Dr Simon Duffy, Centre for Welfare Reform, 2010).
This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.