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The government’s evidence-free policy on benefit sanctions

The government’s evidence-free policy on benefit sanctions

You would think that the government, and the Department for Work and Pensions in particular, would have studied the evidence on the efficacy of benefit sanctions before they made the length someone could face a sanction much longer.

You would also think that Ministers would want to know whether the use of sanctions improved a person’s chance of entering the labour market or not before extending their use.

You would think this knowledge would be fairly fundamental in making any policy decisions, wouldn’t you?

But not, it seems, if you are the last Tory-led coalition government.

This is what the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which I chaired in the last Parliament, found when we looked at the issue of sanctions recently. The Minister, Esther McVey, couldn’t point us to any evidence to suggest that a four week minimum sanction is more likely to make someone compliant or that it acts as an encouragement to get into work than the previous one week sanction. Nor for a three month one, or a three year one.

We did receive a huge amount of evidence from individuals and charities who work with the people affected, which showed the misery caused by this tightened regime. In fact we found there were many, particularly those in vulnerable groups such as people with mental health problems, for whom a sanction actually acts as a barrier to getting into work, rather than a help.

It is not just the length of individual sanctions which has changed but also the reasons why they are imposed, many seeming trivial or even when the person has a “good cause”, a reason for not complying. And it is this which means many suspect that Job Centre Plus (JCP) has targets for the number of sanctions applied.

The legislation says that a sanction can be imposed if a claimant is “not actively seeking work”. However, it is now possible to receive a sanction, not because you haven’t looked for work or turned up for meetings at all, but because you haven’t applied for the number of jobs agreed on your Claimant commitment or were late for a meeting.

Claimant commitments are the part of Universal Credit which has been rolled out across the country so now anyone applying for Job Seekers Allowance has to agree, with their job coach, various actions they will take to help them secure employment. All very laudable.

However, some vulnerable claimants are signing unrealistic Claimant commitments for fear that if they don’t sign, or speak out that they think what they are promising to do is unreasonable, they will be sanctioned for refusing. But when they fall short of what they were supposed to do, they get sanctioned anyway. We were left with the impression that many were being set up to fail.

Without the evidence showing that sanctions change behaviour and help people into work, then their harshness suggests they are merely punitive.

They certainly save on the welfare budget! And those who are sanctioned who don’t continue to “sign on”, disappear off the unemployment statistics. It is also very harsh that a JSA claimant doesn’t have access to hardship funds until day fifteen of a sanction. That’s hard for families who have little resilience, and is one reason for the rise in the use of food banks. We believed there should be better signposting to hardship payments and they should be available from day one.

The Oakley Review of sanctions was limited to the communications between DWP and JSA claimants. But now sanctions are being applied to people on Employment and Support Allowance and there are implications way beyond just clarity in how JCP communicates. Our main recommendation was for a “broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, to investigate whether sanctions are being applied appropriately, fairly and proportionately”.

There is a widespread belief that people have died or committed suicide as a result of the sanctioning regime. Deaths by suicide or vulnerable claimants with complex needs are subject to an internal DWP peer review. However, we were not able to find out how many of the 49 peer reviews carried out since February 2012 were for people who had been sanctioned, nor do we know what recommendations were made. We would like to see an independent complaints body to be set up to investigate such deaths.