Sanctions: the government responds

Issue 249 (Dec 2015)

The government’s response to a Work and Pensions Select Committee report on benefit sanctions1 was issued on 22 October 2015.2 Paul Treloar explores the government’s appetite, or not, for taking up the recommendations made.

Introduction

The government states that‘for the small minority ofclaimants’ who‘refuse tomeettheir agreed requirements’, a benefit sanction is applied ‘as taxpayers expect’. Recently released statistics on sanctions show this ‘small minority’ as having had 1,895,229 adverse sanction decisions appliedforjobseeker’sallowance (JSA) and employment and support allowance (ESA) claims since October 2012, more than 600,000 per year, or over 57,000 a month on average.3

Accepted

The government confirms that housing benefit (HB) payments should not be disrupted by a sanction occurring and says it has issued additional guidance4 to this effect. However, as flagged up in a briefing by Dr David Webster of the University of Glasgow,5 it continues to refuse to look at the position of claimants who are disentitled to JSA as well as receiving a sanction whentheyreclaim. Inthesecases, HBclaimswill continue to stop at the point of disentitlement.

The government says it accepts a need to improve the guidance about how JSA conditionality can be varied to take account of someone’s physical or mental health problems, particularly when appeals are being pursued against ESA claims simultaneously. However, this guidance is not publicly available at present, so it is impossible to know what it says, or how it is to be ‘improved’.

In response to a recommendation for improved guidance on vulnerability around mental health, learning disabilities or cognitive difficulties, the government states it has created a new Vulnerability Hub,6 which in turn con-tains links to a wide body of externa linformation from mental health experts and similar.

It accepts a need to monitor and review the use of jobseeker directions, although the Committee recommended a full evaluation of the claimant commitment and an assessment of the appropriate use of these directions. In response to a recommendation for increased training for work coaches to be given on ‘regulatory’ flexibilities for single parents, the government’s response agrees to simply provide training, including the use of operational guidance.7

The government asserts that the claimant commitment is individually tailored to the claimant’s needs and circumstances. Dr Webster demonstrates how DWP’s own research in 2014 and 2015 suggests otherwise, with 59 per cent or 51 per cent of universal credit claimants believing that their claimant commitment actions did not take account of their personal circumstances.

Accepted in part/principle

The government accepts in principle that Work Programme providers should have flexibility to vary or adapt mandatory activity imposed upon a claimant, prior to the activity happening, in order to prevent a sanction referral being made. It accepts that there may be some ‘straightforward’ decisions that are possible for Work Programme providers in some circumstances, and is considering whether to make changes in this area as part of ongoing policy development.

The Committee recommended piloting pre-sanction warnings and non-financial sanctions for first-time failures. The government says it will trial arrangements, whereby claimants will be given warning of an intention to sanction and a 14-day period afterwards within which to supply evidence of good reason before a decision is made. Though far short of what the Committee recommended, it has welcomed the pledge.8

In response to a recommendation for an evaluation of the claimant commitment, particularly for people with various health problems, the government states that, in principle, it agrees with continuing to evaluate commitments in terms of a claimant’s understanding of the penalties for failure, as well as attitudes towards job search. However, it also states bluntly that there is no evaluation planned for JSA claimants.

The government accepts in principle that core visits should continue to be made to claimants identified as vulnerable, to ensure they understood the requirement to take part.9 However, it has no plans to conduct a specific review of this little-known process. It agrees in principle to consider expanding the definition of ‘at-risk’ groups for hardship payments, as well as accepting, in principle, a recommendation that a decision maker sets up an appointment to discuss hardship where a claimant is either vulnerable or has dependent children.

It also says, however, that aligning the decision-making process between applying a sanction and considering a hardship payment for such claimants is not straightforward, as it needs to ensure that it is able to ‘continue to provide the best support to those who demonstrate eligibility’.

Not accepted

Recommendations for a broad independent review of benefit conditionality and sanctions, for testing different approaches, and the application, or deterrent threat, of financial sanctions, as well as evaluation of sanction lengths, are all firmly rejected by government. It says that the sanctions system is under ‘constant review’ andthatithas decidedto automate the notification system, so that compliance in sending notifications moves ‘towards’ 100 per cent.

The government rejects a recommendation for tracking shorter and longer term employment outcomes and earnings progress of sanctioned benefit claimants. It rejects recommendations to release internal DWP peer review reports commissioned to investigate deaths of benefit claimants who were sanctioned at the time of their passing. This is on the grounds that there is a ‘high risk’ that disclosure may lead to identification of one or more of the individuals involved.

It also rejects a recommendation regarding the creation of a body, modelled on the Independent Police Commission, to conduct reviews, at the request of relatives, in all instances where an individual on an out-of-work working-age benefit dies while receiving that benefit. It highlights that statutory procedures of appeal and/or complaints are available, as well as of MPs and the courts.

Conclusion

In a separate letter to the Committee, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Iain Duncan Smith says that the government sees sanctions as encouraging people to comply with conditions which help them move into work. It wants the system to be clear, fair and effective in promoting positive behaviours.

However, as Dr Webster notes, all specific recommendations that may have thrown light on the parts of the system where there might be problems have been flatly rejected. His own conclusion remains that sanctions constitute ‘a secret parallel penal system with severe penalties but without proper safeguards’

 


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