The National Audit Office has published a critical report on benefits sanctions. In 2015, 400,000 claimants were sanctioned, out of 3.5 million claimants of sanctionable benefits; the NAO reports that 24% of JSA claimants have been sanctioned. The application of sanctions is not properly monitored, and the DWP does not know what effect this is having. The NAO raise doubts about consistency, accuracy and timeliness. Their overall conclusion is this:
The Department has not used sanctions consistently. Referral rates vary substantially across jobcentres and providers, and have risen and fallen over time in ways that cannot be explained by changes in claimant compliance. While the Department is correcting errors earlier, it needs to do more to show that the quality of referrals and sanction decisions has improved. Our review of the available evidence suggests the Department’s use of sanctions is linked as much to management priorities and local staff discretion as it is to claimants’ behaviour.
The DWP, as is their wont, have blamed inconsistencies on the front line staff (p 26). We should be careful what we wish for. It’s perhaps worth putting this together with the information from the Couling Report, which denied (however implausibly) that the DWP had any centrally directed policy to impose sanctions or targets governing their number. If the DWP does as the NAO asks, it will have to.
There are much more serious concerns about sanctions than their inconsistent application. There are reasons to question their purpose, their scope and their legality. I hope that when the Public Accounts Committee will go further when they report on their inquiry.
2 thoughts on “The NAO criticises the inconsistent application of sanctions”
Under what legislation are sanctions authorised?
As ever, the answer is complex. The main legislation is the Welfare Reform Act 2012, but it’s backed up by a body of statutory regulations. JSA sanctions, which account for most, were enabled initially by Part V of the Jobseeker’s Allowance Regulations 1996/207, followed by the Jobseeker’s Allowance (Sanctions) (Amendment) Regulations 2012/2568, and there are further add-ons relating to the Work Programme. The question about the legality of sanctions is a different one. Like the court in Alice in Wonderland, sanctions begin with the sentence and offer a verdict afterwards. As a matter of ‘natural justice’, one of the longest established principles in administrative law, claimants should be given a hearing before penalties can be imposed. This has still to be tested in court.