Monday, 23 March 2015

'Time to rethink benefit sanctions'

'Imagine that your income stopped suddenly tomorrow. Perhaps you would cope for a while, living on savings, running down the food in your kitchen cupboards, maybe making a few lifestyle changes that helped you save money. If someone else in your household were earning, you might be able to manage on their income for a while.

But imagine that you’d exhausted all of those options; if you are an adult of working age, you might reasonably expect that you could turn to the benefits system to give you some basic support. But now imagine that the very same benefits system actually brought about such circumstances. Where would you turn then? Is this what you would expect of a benefits system to which we contribute our taxes, to provide basic support for those who have no other form of income?'

The quotation above, and the title of this post, are both from a report published this month, by Church Action on Poverty, The Baptist Union of Great Britain, the United Reformed Church, the Church of Scotland, and the Church in Wales.

You can find the report yourself here:

I'd strongly encourage you to read it. It's a thorough, well argued and well-researched criticism of the current sanctions regime.

In case you don't get a chance to study it in detail, here's a brief summary of some of the major points covered. This might also encourage you to download the full report.

If you want to know about the sanctions rules for Jobseeker's Allowance in detail, check out the relevant pages on Benefits Owl, which I've just rewritten and expanded:

Increasing numbers of claimants are being sanctioned

Here's some numbers to conjure with:
  • A million sanctions were imposed in 2014 (this compares to about 300,000 in 2000);
  • 22% of Jobseekers receive at least one sanction during their time on benefit'
  • 100 people a day who are classed as unfit to work due to mental health problems are sanctioned every day

Sanctions are frequently disproportionate to the issues that cause them

The report gives a hypothetical example from the department's own guidance to illustrate this:
'“Audrey attends the JCP [Jobcentre Plus] every other Thursday at 10am to sign a declaration.  On 25.10.12 she fails to attend to sign.  On  1.11.12 she attends to sign at her normal time saying she forgot to sign last week as she got muddled with her dates.  On 6.11.12 the DM [Decision Maker] determines that Audrey failed without good reason to participate in an interview as arranged to sign a declaration.  This is Audrey’s first failure.  A 4 week sanction is imposed.”
[Source: DWP Training Memo DMG 37/12]'
As the authors of the report point out, this is the first time "Audrey" has made a mistake, and was only in breach of her ageement for 7 days, but she loses her benefit for a month.

Here is a real example from the report:
'A 40 year old man from Glasgow was sanctioned for missing an appointment. A divorcee, he is a proud father who has worked for most of his life.  He now has no gas or electricity and has been reduced to shoplifting for food. While telling his story, shame, humiliation and desperation reduced him to tears.
[Source: Poverty Truth Commission]'

Sanctions disproportionately affect the most vulnerable

Sanctions are not now just applied to people who are expected to look for work. Claimants on Employment and Support Allowance are also at risk of sanctions, if they are in the work related activity group. As noted above, a hundred of such claimants, who are on ESA due to mental health problems, are sanctioned each day. Data in the report also appears to indicate, worryingly, that claimants with mental health problems form an increasing proportion of those sanctioned.

As the report observes:
'The most common reason for being sanctioned is that a person has been late or not turned up for a Work Programme appointment. For some the symptoms of their illness can be extreme tiredness, a lack of motivation, or an inability to face social situations. It is therefore not surprising that people experiencing these symptoms can find it very difficult to attend Work Programme appointments...Sanctioning such people is not a measured response to wilful misbehaviour. It is effectively punishing a person for the symptom of an illness, equivalent to sanctioning someone with a broken leg for limping.' 

Evidence compiled for the report indicates that sanctions have particularly severe consequences on young people not in education, employment, or training, care leavers, homeless people, single parents, and those experiencing domestic violence, as well as those with long-term health conditions.

It is not just the claimants themselves who suffer. Figures obtained via Freedom of Information requests show that around 100,000 children were affected by sanctions.

The report also argues that the sanctions system deliberately harms health. It refers to DWP guidance in which it is accepted that 'it would be usual for the normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without... essential items, such as food, clothing, heating, and accommodation or sufficient money to buy essential items for a period of two weeks' [i.e. due to sanctions]. I'm not sure this quite justifies the reports assertion: however, I think it can safely be said that the DWP is prepared to accept the health of claimants being harmed as a consequence of sanctions.

The provision of hardship payments for those on sanctions is inadequate

Although hardship payments are available, the report highlights a number of problems with these:

  • Most people are unable to apply for them for the first two weeks, and frequently don't receive them for a further two weeks;
  • Under the new Universal Credit rules hardship payments are loaned, recovered later by reducing benefit payments to 60% of normal.
Also (though this is not mentioned in the report) sanctions payments are much lower than normal benefit payments, typically 40% less for a single adult).

There is, in my opinion, an error in the report, as it states that claimants' have to ask friends and relatives for money before being considered for a hardship payment'. DWP Guidance makes it clear that this should not be required:

'Note: It is not considered reasonable to expect claimants to rely upon charities, such as food banks, increase debts by seeking credit or using or extending overdraft facilities, sell or pawn items to obtain cash, find cheaper housing or ask friends and family for help in order to meet their essential needs. Whilst claimants may be prepared to request such help there should be no requirement to do so and claimants should not be denied access to hardship payments if they don’t' [DMG Chapter 35 - Hardship (para 35212), emphasis mine]

Of course what actually happens is another matter.

There is very little evidence that sanctions are effective at getting people into work

'For every 100 sanctions imposed, 42 people will leave benefits but only 7 will enter work. There is not a clear picture of how the remaining 35 who leave benefit manage'

The report also notes that evidence does not show that the longer the sanction is, the better the effect of the claimant's ability to find work. If anything, analysis from the past suggests that longer sanctions results in claimants becoming 'disengaged and less likely to accept help'.

The regime's harshness is not evidence based

It's always interesting, when studying government initiatives, to look at the research and data that - at least notionally - underpins the changes. In this case, the report traces the origins of the changes to a research report by Professor Paul Gregg. The only problem is that the regime proposed by Gregg is manifestly a very different animal from what we actually have. He suggested a maximum sanction of one month (compared with the actual maximum of three years) and expected there to be less than 1000 one month sanctions per year (compare this with the actual figure for 2014 of 880,000).

I commend the Gregg report to you (I've attached a link below). It's thoughtful, carefully argued, and evidence based. Reading it is, however, a melancholy activity, given the differences between what it proposed and what is inflicted on claimants today.

And finally...

The report addresses a number of what it generously refers to as 'misunderstandings' about sanctions - assertions made by those who support the regime - and rebuts the assertions on a point by point basis.

I've done my best to give you a brief taster of what's included, but if you want to know more I highly recommend this authoritative, informed, and timely commentary.

If you want to know more about sanctions...

I've just given my pages on Jobseeker's Allowance sanctions an extensive rewrite: the information is now (certainly) more thorough and (possibly) clearer. Here it is:

You might also want to look at some of the information sources of the report, as well as the report itself.

The report - "Time to rethink benefit sanctions" - can be found here:
Church Action on Poverty:

The source for a lot of the raw data in the report is here:

The report also references the a briefing on sanctions statistics by the Child Poverty Action Group:

The Gregg Report:

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