The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report on Benefit Sanctions has just been released. This is highly critical of the way the system is run, and does point out that sanctions can have serious negative consequences – for people’s ability to find work as well as their wider well-being. But it never really questions underlying principles, or stops to ask what this is all for. Any changes that it manages to squeeze out of the government will only be nibbling at the edges, though they may make a difference to some people directly affected.
A system that is conditional on people looking for work will always include some form of sanctions to ensure that people comply. The current concern is that both the conditions put on people and the sanctions applied have grown exponentially in recent years – especially under the Tories but under New Labour too. By making conditions for people on benefits increasingly onerous, the government ensures that British workers accept poor pay and conditions without public protest for fear of something worse; and by deliberately stigmatising the unemployed, government aims to cut across people in and out of work making common cause in resistance.
The report criticises the DWP for being inconsistent and for failing to collect data and monitor the effects of their actions. But, it’s not so much they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t really care to know, because sanctions were never about getting individuals into jobs. This is a system of control, and as such it is working just as intended. And for control based on fear, inconsistency and unpredictability is a bonus. In fact, they don’t even have to sanction people as often as before, because that fear has been absorbed by both benefit claimants and those in precarious work and is expressed as self-regulation.
In the SUWN we argue against all sanctions – not just for a return to a less punitive past. This is not a dream. It can be achieved through the adoption of a system of Universal Basic Income for everyone. That would bring an end to means testing too.
Here are the key conclusions and recommendations from the House of Commons report:
- Benefit sanctions affect a large number of people, sometimes leading to hardship and undermining efforts to find work. Around a quarter of people on Jobseeker’s Allowance between 2010 and 2015 had at least one sanction imposed on them. Suspending people’s benefit payments can lead to rent arrears and homelessness. While these consequences can encourage some people to look for employment, they can undermine others’ efforts to find work. The consequences of sanctions on claimants can be serious so they should be used carefully. However, sanctions can be imposed for honest mistakes. Citizens Advice highlighted the need for flexibility for people who are trying their best. Recommendation: The Department for Work and Pensions should undertake a trial of warnings (rather than sanctions) for first sanctionable offences, as recommended by the independent Oakley Review and the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
- Sanctions are imposed inconsistently on claimants by different jobcentres and providers. Sanction use varies substantially, some Work Programme providers refer twice as many people for sanctions as other providers in the same area. The Department for Work and Pensions (the Department) told us there will always be variation. This does not mean that current levels of unexplained variation are acceptable. It is important that the use of sanctions is fair and consistent and the Department has not analysed why some jobcentres use sanctions so much more than others. Jobcentres may be applying different standards. Citizens Advice and Crisis are concerned that inconsistency affects vulnerable claimants the most. Some vulnerable claimants can be excused from having to meet benefit conditions, but the Department does not monitor how often these exemptions are used, so it cannot be sure that vulnerable people receive the protection they are entitled to. Recommendation: The Department should monitor variation in sanction referrals and assess reasons for the differences across jobcentres. It should monitor the use and take-up of protections for vulnerable groups, reporting back to us by the end of 2017.
- The Department’s data systems are not yet good enough for it to routinely understand what effect sanctions have on claimants’ employment prospects. There are significant gaps in the Department’s understanding of sanctions and it has not prioritised the improvement of its data. It may be difficult or impossible to determine an ideal level of sanctions, but the lack of data in this area is a barrier to making improvements. The Department now plans, over the next 12 months, to improve its old and poorly-connected systems, to extract better data, and allow it to track the impact sanctions have on claimants’ earnings. Recommendation: The Department should report back to us by the end of 2017 on its progress in improving data systems, including on linking earnings outcomes to sanctions data, and addressing recommendations for better information made by the UK Statistics Authority and National Audit Office.
- The Department does not understand the wider effects of sanctions. The Department intends that sanctions prompt claimants to comply with conditions and take up support from jobcentres. This should make people more likely to find work. The Department emphasised evidence that sanctions increase employment, but the evidence is also very mixed. Sanctions can lead to short-term and lowerpaid work. Other people stop claiming after a sanction without finding a job. This can create knock-on effects that others pay for, such as using food banks or needing advice from local authorities or charities for dealing with debt. Recommendation: The Department should work with the rest of government to estimate the impacts of sanctions on claimants and their wider costs to government and report back to us on progress at the end of 2017.
- The impacts of sanctions can be worse for people with housing-related barriers to employment. For some people, their main barrier to moving into employment is the struggle to find, or keep, a permanent roof over their head. The charity Crisis raised concerns about sanctions exacerbating these housing-related barriers to employment, and even causing homelessness in some cases. A third of people surveyed by Crisis who were claiming Housing Benefit had this stopped because of a sanction. The Department confirmed that Housing Benefit should not be stopped due to sanctions and told us that it found no evidence of the problem when it examined the issue in one area. Recommendation: The Department should work to better understand the relationship between sanctions and the housing-related barriers to employment that some people face. It should set out what more it will do to assure itself that Housing Benefit is not being stopped in error due to sanctions.