Rights (and wrongs) of sanctions

At Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), we’ve had longstanding concerns about the use of sanctions, which are basically cuts to benefit payments of up to 100% for up to 3 years, and the obvious knock-on impacts on child poverty.  And as the letter in today's Times that we and others have signed shows, we’re not alone in having profound concerns with how sanctions are working.

Until now, there’s been little authoritative evidence of how sanctions are being applied, rightly or wrongly, beyond data suggesting a huge increase in their application in recent years. However, this week saw the publication of an independent review by Matthew Oakley into the system of jobseeker’s allowance (JSA) sanctions applied to payments where claimants have been found to have fallen short in their jobseeking activities.

Matthew Oakley’s report, published on Tuesday, made a number of very worrying findings, which we hope will make government and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) pay serious attention to the problems identified.  In his foreword, Mr Oakley notes that:

“No matter what system of social security is in place, if it is communicated poorly, if claimants do not understand the system and their responsibilities, and if they are not empowered to challenge decisions they believe to be incorrect and seek redress, then it will not fulfil its purpose. It will be neither fair nor effective.”

We’re encouraged that he recognises from the outset that claimants must be properly informed of their responsibilities, and the penalties that may apply when things go awry. Even more importantly, perhaps, is the notion that individuals must be empowered to challenge flawed or wrong decisions.

However, we remain concerned that many of the recommendations made are related to broad-ranging policy rather than an effective approach to sanctions that sees proper legal protection for people  - in other words, a rights-based approach - falling foul of the system through no fault of their own.

Take the letters informing people that they’re being sanctioned as an example. Oakley recommends these letters are improved. He’s right; they aren’t good enough and could be much better. Yet CPAG would rather see an approach whereby no sanction can ever be enforced unless the statutory requirements to notify someone that (i) they have been sanctioned, (ii) why they have been sanctioned, and (iii) what they can do to challenge that sanction, are properly adhered to.

Similarly, Matthew Oakley states that there is a problem with accessing hardship payments when sanctions have been imposed, as claimants are not told about them. Again, the recommendation is to improve information provided, whereas CPAG would argue that every sanction decision should be made in conjunction with another decision as to eligibility for a hardship payment.

More broadly, and perhaps flagging up the limits of the scope of Matthew Oakley’s review, CPAG is deeply concerned about the inflexible approach to sanctions currently, whereby they are imposed for fixed periods, meaning that even if the claimant rectifies the reason for the sanction being imposed, the sanction remains in place.

This blunt-edged approach to decision making, we would argue, flies in the face of natural justice and pays very little heed to individual circumstances, particularly the knock-on impacts on children in a household. That’s why we’d also like to see DWP systematically collecting and sharing data about how many children are being affected by the current sanctions regime.

Don’t get me wrong, we’re very pleased that Matthew Oakley has produced a report which highlights and challenges many of the difficulties and shortfalls of the current sanctions regime. We’re simply arguing that more could, and indeed should, be done to avoid unnecessarily punishing children in the name of incentivising benefit claimants to move back towards the world of work.