Sanctions under scrutiny

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When MPs on the Commons Work and Pensions Committee sat down to take evidence in the second instalment of their inquiry on sanctions yesterday, two media stories hung in the air.

Radio 4’s File on Four had the night before delivered a damning indictment of the sanctions system, trailing new evidence from Mind and the Methodist Church revealing that, on a daily basis, 100 people with mental health difficulties are sanctioned. What’s more, the programme unveiled findings from a survey of Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union members showing 61% felt pressured to refer claimants for sanctions inappropriately. The Guardian’s front page on the morning of the session, meanwhile, reported Oxford University’s finding that only a fifth of claimants who had left JSA after a sanction had reported moving into work.

So a head of steam was building on sanctions when the session opened. Child Poverty Action Group’s (CPAG) Chief Executive Alison Garnham was one of four witnesses giving evidence to the cross-party Committee. The current system, she told MPs, amounted to a “breach of natural justice”. As CPAG has consistently argued, claimants have no opportunity to understand or challenge sanctions decisions before they are imposed and no opportunity to remove a sanction by adjusting their behaviour. As it stands, the system is harshly punitive and gives rise to irrational decision-making.

Far too often, sanctions are applied on “frail grounds” Alison told MPs, in what has become a culture of fear. Communications with claimants are consistently poor – such that claimants often have no idea that a sanction is going to be imposed until it has already happened. Reading one letter sent to a claimant Alison told the Committee: “It is very difficult for claimants to understand. At no point does the letter say you’ve been sanctioned, what for, how to appeal and that hardship payments may be available.”

None of the four witnesses, when asked, had seen any evidence that sanctioned claimants were automatically being offered hardship payments since last summer, when the issue was highlighted in training for advisers.

But if it is punitive, does the current system at least move claimants closer to a sustainable job? No, was the consensus among witnesses yesterday. And how could it, Alison pointed out: sanctions are explicitly understood in DWP guidance to advisors to be likely to harm health (the guidance states: "It would be usual for a normal, healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without essential items such as food, clothing, heating or accommodation") making it all the more unlikely that a sanction would boost someone's chance of finding a job. When money is that tight, the focus is on survival.

So what would help? Positive relationships with advisers and more personalised support, witnesses agreed. “The DWP has huge amounts of evidence on what works in terms of work activation”, Alison explained. “The [voluntary] New Deal for Lone Parents doubled lone parents’ chances of getting a job and the successful aspect was the relationship of trust with an adviser.”

Ministers and officials are next up in front of the Committee – on February 4th. And the Committee’s report will be out early March. After that we’ll learn whether the Government has listened and is minded to bring about a more humane system that works with claimants – rather than against them - in order to meet its aspiration to 'get Britain working'.