A comment on a US press website led me to a report produced in Chicago by the Heartland Institute. They are apparently convinced that what poor people in the USA really need is a boot up the backside. “Successful welfare reform can save lives and produce positive effects on multiple generations. It can save taxpayers billions of dollars and help address such serious social maladies as crime, alcoholism, and teenage pregnancy.” So, they have produced a state-by-state report card for the administrations that do the things they approve of, including sanctions, time limits, strict work requirements, “service integration” based on support programmes for deviant behaviour and trading off entitlement to benefit for a lump sum. They then compare that to what’s been achieved in work participation, poverty reduction, numbers of claimants and so forth. What their figures show, despite their initial assumptions, is that there is no visible relationship between the strictness of the regime that’s being operated and the outcomes. If anything, from page 7, two of the top five states for implementing the policies they approve of are in the bottom five states for outcomes.
This isn’t what I’m currently working on. I’ve been reading up about benefits in developing countries, and that literature gives me a very different view of conditionality. “You cannot pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots … Cash transfers work. … All the evidence is that people spend grant money wisely and that grants do not encourage people to be lazy or workshy. … Giving people money is proving to be the best way to stimulate local economic developments in low income countries.” By contrast, “there is almost no evidence that conditions make any difference.” That’s from J Hanlon et al, Just give money to the poor, Kumarian Press 2010, pp 4, 173-4. and p 131.
From the Daily Telegraph, 5th March 2015:
Iain Duncan Smith: Taking people off benefits is ‘compassionate’.
… for too long it has been assumed that compassion is “soft” … There is nothing compassionate about increasing dependency by spending more of taxpayers’ money … No – Conservative compassion is about getting someone back to work, taking the tough choices to move someone clear of the benefits system.
From the Mirror, 6th March 2015:
Father killed himself after his benefits were cut and he was threatened with eviction
A father-of-three killed himself after his benefits were cut and he was threatened with eviction. … Mr McDonald’s benefits had been stopped by the Department of Work and Pensions … A spokesman for mental health charity Mind said: “It would be helpful to see what could be going wrong in the benefits system that leads to these tragic situations.”
David Webster has asked me to post his latest report on sanctions. He writes:
This release includes the first analysis of the new system of Mandatory Reconsideration. MR has been widely misunderstood. It has fundamentally changed the whole appeal process. It has greatly reduced the number of challenges to sanctions and has killed off appeals to independent Tribunals, completely in the case of ESA and almost completely for JSA. Overall the proportion of JSA sanctions overturned has stayed the same, but the proportion of ESA sanctions overturned has fallen from 35% to 20%. It seems quite likely that this is due to ESA claimants not being able to cope with the phone calls that are now made to them at home as part of the Mandatory Reconsideration process.
Ministers claim that only a ‘tiny minority’ of JSA claimants are sanctioned, but FoI response 2014-4972 shows that almost one fifth (18.4%) of claimants in 2013/14 were sanctioned, after reviews/reconsiderations and appeals. The proportion before challenges will have been about one fifth. Of the individuals sanctioned in the year to June 2014, almost one third (30.9% ) were sanctioned more than once in the year.
There were an estimated 895,000 JSA and ESA sanctions in the year to September 2014, before challenges. As a percentage of claimants, JSA sanctions have stabilised at around double the level inherited by the Coalition.
The estimated amount of money lost to claimants through JSA sanctions imposed in 2013/14 is in the region of £328m, with almost £5m lost to ESA claimants. This is without including the money lost to people driven off benefits altogether.
I spent some time on Friday listening to the Work and Pensions Committee’s session on sanctions. The second panel, in particular, has been reported as being highly critical of benefits sanctions; if anything, they were not critical enough. It was accepted that conditionality was necessary, because some conditionality is intrinsic to unemployment benefits. Much was made of the absence of evidence to support the sanctions regime, which seems to imply as an argument that if it turned out that sanctions were effective in moving people to work, they would be justified.
There are three problems with these arguments. The first is a conceptual confusion between conditionality and sanctions. There have to be conditions, because there have to be eligibility criteria; that is not the same as saying that people have to incur punishment as a spur to activity.
Second, there have been sanctions in place, in one form or another, for over a hundred years, and it would be a poor show if we couldn’t say anything about that experience. We know, or should know, that patterns of employment and unemployment in that time are not related to anything happening in benefits; it’s the state of the economy that matters. Previous penalties (the four week rule and the hike to 26 weeks) had no visible effect on employment; there was some reason to think that stopping benefits under the four week rule led to crime, but that’s another story. We know that when people were faced with the lighter sanctions regime, 90% returned to work within a year, and that now, under a stricter sanctions regime, 80% do. And we know how sanctions are being operated – as reports from CPAG and Mind amply demonstrate, they are arbitrary, harsh and penal. This is not a lack of evidence; it is a lack of evidence to make any case for sanctions, and that is not the same thing.
The third problem is that this all misses the point: this is a moral argument, not an evidential one. The people who think they are a bad idea generally think that benefits are there to protect people. The people who think that sanctions are a good idea believe that a strict penal policy is ethically desirable, because benefits should be the last port of call rather than the first and there should be a deterrent. If sanctions work in most cases, or if they don’t work, does it really matter to those positions?
I mentioned last month that I’d been doing some work about sanctions, to help the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. The House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee has asked for evidence about the issues of sanctions not considered by the Oakley review. SFHA’s evidence is here.
David Webster has sent me his latest briefing on sanctions. David’s key points are:
- Total numbers of JSA sanctions have started to fall back, reflecting the decline in claimant unemployment. They have stabilised at the unprecedentedly high levels of about 7% of claimants per month before reconsiderations and appeals, and 6% after.
- ESA sanctions have risen to all-time highs, reaching an estimated 1.16% of claimants per month before
reconsiderations and appeals, and 0.97% after. The big surge in ESA sanctions has been entirely due to ‘failure to participate in work related activity’.
- Since October 2012, 833,628 individuals have received an average of 1.73 sanctions each.
- The DWP has still published no figures on Mandatory Reconsiderations, introduced on 28 October 2013. Mandatory Reconsideration appears to have caused an almost total collapse in appeals to Tribunals. There were only 23 Tribunal decisions on JSA and ESA sanctions in the three months April to June, compared to a normal monthly rate of over 1,000.
- The Work Programme continues to deliver more sanctions than job outcomes.
I’m doing some related work to help the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations consider the issues around sanctions, but more of that in due course.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has produced a helpful overview of evidence on conditionality in the benefits system. While there is much evidence to suggest that conditionality cuts the number of people on benefits, there is not so much evidence to show that it increases engagement in the labour market, with the possible exception of low paid, precarious jobs.
David Webster has also pubished a detailed report on the Oakly report on sanctions: I’ve posted it here.
I’m on my way back from a discussion with housing providers. Our main subject was Employment and Support Allowance, but sanctions are a subject that comes up continually – not least because misclassification and administrative mistakes often end up with claimants being sanctioned for non-compliance. Among the examples of sanctions raised by the agencies, there were
- a woman refused access to the Job Centre because she had a baby with her (no children are allowed) and sanctioned because she was unable to get in for the interview
- a claimant with poor mental health declared fit for work, and sanctioned immediately afterward because he wasn’t able to remember anything he’d done about it, and
- a homeless, pregnant woman whose benefit was stopped because she changed her address. (‘I thought there must be more to it than that’, the adviser told me, ‘so I rang up to find out. Yes, the person in the call centre said, it was because she changed her address.’)
Any benefit system has to have conditions. But, the workers were saying, there is an imbalance here. Any default by claimants is dealt with immediately. Bad decisions are difficult to challenge and slow to change.
A sentence in a rather dull report by the Social Security Advisory Committee caught my eye: “Sanctions can have positive impacts, ensuring that claimants meet the responsibilities associated with their social security entitlement, and acting as a disincentive to voluntary unemployment.” There may be arguments for sanctions, which have been part of social provision since the Reformation – they are essentially about compliance and fairness – but I am not sure there is much reason to think that there is a “positive impact”. The whole point of sanctions is, surely, that they are punishments, and punishments are supposed to have a negative impact – that’s how they work.
The usual arguments for punishment are retribution – wrongdoers should have evil visited upon them – and deterrence – it will stop the offence happening again. But there is a further argument: that punishment can be character-forming. I was hit with the tawse in my primary school, and one routine treatment of offenders in my junior school was to bend over so that the teacher could whack us on the backside with a chair leg. Autres temps, autres moeurs. When the SSAC reviewed the issue in 2006, the nearest they came to showing any change was the comment from half of the unemployed respondents who had been sanctioned that they would now be more likely to look for work. That may show that the sinners have repented, but equally it might tell us more about the answers people learn to give when they have been punished. Neil Couling, of the DWP, told a Holyrood committee in April that “many benefit recipients welcome the jolt that a sanction can give them”. Take six of the best and say, “Thank you sir”.
Few commentators had any great hopes of the Oakley review on sanctions, but the report has been welcomed in the press, because it does have some (fairly muted) criticism of the operation of the system. Oakley’s main concerns are whether the sanctions are clearly communicated and understood; unsurprisingly, they’re not.
Beyond that, however, Oakley was asked to consider the process of sanctions for people referred to mandatory work schemes. “The Review … was tasked with assessing and making recommendations around how the process of benefit sanctions functions in these circumstances, and how well claimants understand the system.” There is something on the second part of that, but there is hardly any consideration of the operational process, which begins with “making decisions and allowing good reason”. There is a count of the number of decisions, but no consideration of the integrity, quality or operation of that process. To my mind, then, the report’s focus falls short even of its very limited remit.