Iain Duncan Smith has recently announced that the harsh and punitive benefit sanctions regime will be made ‘less aggressive’, in response to criticism from a parliamentary select committee. But does that go far enough?
The Work and Pensions Secretary said that people subjected to sanctions would from now on be given a “yellow card” or warning before the sanction is imposed.
People would be given a 14 day grace period to provide evidence of why a sanction should not be applied. The onus is on the person claiming benefits to provide evidence and account of any “non-compliance” with the strict codes of “conditionality”, which is a now fundamental part of eligibility for social security.
However, widely criticised decisions include people being sanctioned for missing jobcentre appointments because they had to attend a job interview, or people sanctioned for not looking for work because they had already secured a job due to start in a week’s time.
A man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment, and so failed to complete the assessment.
The Work and Pensions Committee in March called for an independent inquiry into the way the sanctions operated, for the second time in a year. In the Committee report, MPs warned that the sanctions regime appeared to be “purely punitive”.
In August the DWP was caught out making up quotes from supposed “benefit claimants,” saying that sanctions had actually “helped” them. A freedom of Information request (FOI) from Welfare Weekly exposed the fact that neither the comments on DWP leaflets nor the people used for the photographs were genuine. The DWP admitted that both “quotes” and people were for “illustrative purposes only”.
The Department of Work and Pensions is under fire again, this time for applying punitive benefit sanctions without any prior warning to tens of thousands of people over the past five years, according to the leading academic David Webster.
In almost 300,000 cases, claimants have been hit with sanctions without being officially notified. The shocking figure includes an estimated 28,000 cases in Scotland. Campaigners warn that claimants are being left without any money and plunged into “crisis”.
The figure has been calculated based on data released by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) by Dr David Webster, an honorary senior research fellow in urban studies at Glasgow University.
Under the Conservative Welfare “Reform” Act, sanctions are now used much more readily within the social security system. The severity of sanctions has also increased and conditionality is now controversially applied to previously exempt groups, such as lone parents and disabled people.
The DWP’s own analysis found that in 2014, there were 47,239 sanction decisions – a total of 6.9% of all cases – where claimants of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) had not been notified in writing.
The DWP letters – which outline the sanction decision and the right to ask for a review and lodge an appeal – had not been sent out due to an “administration error.” The first that many people knew of the sanction was when they found they had not been paid into their bank account.
Webster has calculated that applying the percentage over the past five years shows there were around 279,000 cases where claimants had their benefit stopped without being officially notified.
The theories of “behaviour change” originating from the Cabinet’s “Nudge Unit” and advocated and extended by the Conservatives to prop up a small state ideology, underpin conditionality and sanctioning.
The efficacy of sanctions has been questioned by commentators from both the Right and the Left (including myself), with respect to the assumed responses of welfare recipients to financial sanctions and incentives, but also because of the profoundly unethical dimensions presented by state action that involves removing lifeline support that was calculated to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter.
There are further concerns that welfare conditionality leads to a range of unintended effects, including: distancing people from support; causing hardship and destitution; displacing rather than resolving issues such as street homelessness and anti-social behaviour; and negative impacts on third parties, particularly children.
Webster has said previously that research, and “a torrent of evidence from Britain’s voluntary sector, shows a wide range of adverse effects. Sanctions undermine physical and mental health, cause hardship for family and friends, damage relationships, create homelessness and drive people to Food Banks and payday lenders, and to crime. They also often make it harder to look for work.
“Taking these negatives into account, they cannot be justified. Benefit sanctions are an ‘amateurish, secret penal system’ which is actually more severe than the mainstream judicial system, but lacks its safeguards. It is time for everyone concerned for the rights of the citizen to demand their abolition.”
The DWP has admitted the letters should have been sent out and is now writing to all those who did not receive the notification. However the correspondence will not include an apology for the error.
The DWP say that they have now changed procedures so that letters to notify of sanctions will now be triggered automatically instead of having to be sent out manually.
Webster said the figures published by the DWP were an “important admission” of the problem.
He said: “It is a very large number and it explains why so many of these cases are being thrown up in the various voluntary sector reports on sanctions.
“This is one of the commonest stories that people tell – that the first they knew about a sanction is when they went to the cash machine and there was no money.”
He added: “You can do an estimate of the number in Scotland and there would be around 28,000 occasions a sanction has been imposed without the claimant being notified.”
However, Duncan Smith has said that the “yellow card” approach would be introduced on a trial basis, which is a relatively small commitment, next year.
In a letter to the Work and Pensions Select Committee, he said: “During this time, [two weeks] claimants will have another opportunity to provide further evidence to explain their non-compliance.”
“We will then review this information before deciding whether a sanction remains appropriate. We expect that this will strike the right balance between enforcing the claimant commitment and fairness.”
Figures published in 2014 revealed that nearly half of benefit sanctions are overturned on appeal, highlighting the serious flaws in the current system.
David Webster’s written and oral evidence to the recent House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into Benefit Sanctions, Beyond the Oakley Review, is available on the Parliament.uk website. His other papers on sanctions are available via Child Poverty Action Group.