'Early warning' report about sanctions

CPAG in Scotland has set up an ‘Early Warning System’ to identify problems reported by front-line workers nin the operation of benefits.  Their first policy briefing is online, giving examples of problems with sanctions.  They give examples of a series of  mistaken decisions:  for example, a sanction for not reporting for the Work Programme while in police custody and benefits were already stopped, and a sanction for turning up for the time on the letter instead of the time the office thought it had sent out.  Part of this, too, is that people who are suffering sanctions then have to go to food banks – a link recently denied by Neil Couling, of the DWP, at a meeting of the Holyrood Welfare Reform Committee.

David Webster: new document on sanctions

David Webster has asked me to host another substantial document on sanctions policy, which you can find here.  His key points are:

  • The total JSA plus ESA sanctions in the year to 30 September 2013 were 897,690.
  • In the year to 30 September 2013, JSA claimants were sanctioned at the rate of 5.11% per month, and in the 3 months to 30 September 2013 at the rate of 6.00% per month.
  • The rate of sanctions is accelerating.
  • There has been a sensational increase in the success rate of claimants at tribunal– but only one in 50 claimants appeals.

Some of us might think that the high rate of success at tribunal is an indication that bad decisions are being made.  The government leans to  the view that all it shows is that tribunals are too accessible and they are now proposing to charge people for the privilege of appealing a decision to leave them with no money.   As Mr Punch might say, while battering nuisance objectors to death:  That’s the way to do it.

Evidence on sanctions

A number of third sector organisations have submitted evidence to the review of sanctions being conducted by Matthew Oakley for the government.   Their responses are not being made public routinely, so CPAG has collected information about them and published a list of links. The submissions offer a long series of examples of clumsy, unreasonable, often self-contradictory directions to claimants:

Claimant had learning difficulties and had been sent on a work placement to a charity shop. When he got there it had closed down. He was sanctioned for ‘failing to engage with his work placement’.  (NAWRA submission)

A South of Scotland CAB reports of a client who moved from ESA to JSA 8 weeks ago.  He has now received a four week sanction for not logging on to the JSA website 5 times a week and not approaching 10 potential employers.  He has no internet at home or on his phone, and struggles with the cost of travelling into the nearest town each day to access a computer.  He was not allowed to log on the day he attended the interview. (Citizens Advice Scotland)

Caller N was told by her JCP adviser that she was sanctioned because she was not  actively seeking work, but she was under a training programme with a major retailer at the time.  (Gingerbread)

The Homeless Link submission points to consequent problems with Housing Benefit, rent arrears, service charge arrears, obstacles to resettling clients and eviction notices.

“The over-riding picture”, the submission by the National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers comments, ” … is one of sanctions being applied inappropriately, without proper consultation and without proper notification.”  Reading through the submissions, what comes over is not so much evidence of determined action to discipline claimants as a sorry tale of arbitrary and ill-explained procedures, implemented haphazardly by agencies who have been instructed to sanction people more actively.

David Webster on JSA sanctions

David Webster has prepared a detailed commentary on the statistics for JSA sanctions, for submission to the Work and Pensions Committee, and he has sent me a copy so that I can post it on the blog.  The paper is here.  Among his points are that

  • sanctions are being used more than at any time since the 1920s
  • sanctions appear to be driving people out of the benefits system
  • the success of appeals shows that many decisions are wrong.

He has also commented to me that the Work Programme sanctions more people than it gets into work.

The DWP has announced an independent review of sanctions, to be headed up by Matthew Oakley, Head of Economic Analysis at Which?

Are there targets for the number of sanctions?

I’ve done a couple of turns this week for the BBC.  The first, on Tuesday, was for Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye, on universal benefits for pensioners.  The second, late last night, was on Newsnight Scotland, covering JSA sanctions.  Gordon Brewer, the presenter was apologetic to the viewers: they couldn’t get the DWP, Conservatives or Liberal Democrats to put anybody up, and all they could offer instead was me.

I was asked specifically to say whether or not Jobcentre Plus was working to targets.  This isn’t a subject I’ve covered before in the blog, and I thought I ought to explain the answer I gave.  Following accusations about targets in the Guardian, the DWP, which denies that it has such targets,  held an internal inquiry.  The report by Neil Couling, published last May, is here.  It claims repeatedly that there is ‘no evidence’ that there are such targets.  But it also goes through a dossier of thirteen papers which seem to show the opposite.  In each case, the argument runs, people who had written about targets were doing something that was inconsistent with current policy.

Example three is a photograph taken of a poster in a Derbyshire site which states numerically a minimum level of referrals which the office should be looking to make. This was also detailed by the Guardian. Upon investigation, this chart was intended by local management to ensure consistency both across their Adviser teams and with other sites with similar labour markets. The poster was removed in January 2013. There is no evidence of any formal target setting here but there was clearly an expectation set based on numerical averages which is against policy.

Example seven consists of excerpts from three e-mails … These e-mails do refer to benchmarks being applied but are also specific in that referrals should only be made where appropriate. …  The content of the e-mails, in part, does not reflect the current policy and is therefore unacceptable …

Example 10 is an excerpt from an e-mail sent by a cluster manager in which flight-paths and targets are mentioned. This was also detailed by the Guardian. The detail and tone of the e-mail clearly contravenes our policy. This has been raised with the District Manager who agrees that the wording of the e-mail was inappropriate and has taken action with the individual to remedy this.

Couling suggests that where an agency has been conditioned over several years into thinking of guidance as a target, it can be difficult to stop. It might equally be argued, of course, that this particular vice is liable to encouraged if central agencies present their guidance to administrators in terms of numbers and league tables.

580,000 sanctions of JSA

Statistics released today show that between 22nd October 2012 (the start of the new system) and 30th June 2013, 580,210 adverse decisions were made against claimants of Jobseekers Allowance.  Some of those will be made against people who have been sanctioned before, but about 350,000 are first-time sanctions and the tables record the number of individuals affected as 397,180.  There is a brief report in the Guardian.

During this period there were just over 1.5 million claimants of JSA.  I’m not sure what proportion of unemployed people are now being subjected to sanctions, because the numbers need to be matched to the flow  of claimants over that time rather than the total numbers.  However, as a guess, given the throughput, it’s not likely to be much less than one in five.

Additional note, 6th November:  David Webster has sent me a fuller briefing on the statistics about sanctions.  Download his paper here.

Homeless Link: homeless people are liable to be sanctioned

A depressing report from Homeless Link explains that homeless people are particularly likely to suffer from sanctions and penalties. The numbers are iffy, but the trend seems clear – sanctions are applied disproportionately for young people with problems in mental health or substance abuse.

“While the intention of sanctions is to incentivise claimants into work, our research shows that this is not happening for homeless people. Instead, sanctions are effectively punishing vulnerable people – who are trying to engage with finding work – for making mistakes.”

How sanctions can make people less likely to work

It often happens that the people I talk to can tell me far more than I can tell them, and today was another of those days: I was discussing welfare reform with a group of specialists on work and employability support.  People who don’t have a settled way of life are not outstandingly employable, and to get them to the point where they stand a chance of holding down a job,  the first task is to make sure that they can have a regular lifestyle.   However, claimants are also liable to routinely sanctions when they fail to comply with DWP instructions, to turn up to meetings, or to take the actions that are required of them.  Predictably,  people who don’t have a settled way of life aren’t very good at jumping through the hoops or complying with instructions, and it follows that they’re particularly likely to be sanctioned.  The most immediate effect of a sanction is that the rent doesn’t get paid; and if a claimant gets evicted, everything else necessary for employability collapses.  So the agencies who are supporting the claimants have to spend their time trying to save people from being evicted, and that – rather than positive support – is where their effort is currently focused.  The effect of current policy in such cases is not then to encourage people into work, but to destroy any reasonable prospect that they might be employed in the foreseeable future.

Welfare reform in a wintry New Zealand

Britain has a rival in the contest to make social security as repellent as possible. New Zealand’s bracing programme of legislation is working hard to make the system more punitive.   Working age benefits are being reformed into three branches, for job seekers, sole parents and those requiring support. Among the reforms there are

  • three-month sanctions where benefit is either stopped or, where there are children, reduced by 50%
  • reductions in benefit for people who are subject to arrest warrants  (as this is pre-trial, I take that to refer to people who are presumed innocent)
  • an expectation of work for people who are sick
  • drug-testing for job-seekers
  • re-application for benefit after a year’s continuous receipt, and
  • registration of young children with general practices and enrolment of young children in nursery education and health care programmes (I think I agree with this one).

The sanctions may seem harsh, but by comparison with the UK’s three years and subsequent repayment or hardship payments for years more, they are almost moderate.