Perhaps we were getting too complacent about the decline in sanctions. At last week’s much-too-busy stall we encountered three people who had been sanctioned – including one who had contacted their Work Programme Provider, Triage, to tell them that they couldn’t come to an appointment because they were going to be at college; and another who was on Universal Credit and doing part time work and whose job had clashed with his Jobcentre interview. As always, we advised them to appeal, and that it was worth doing this even after the statutory month if the DWP had clearly broken their own rules.
When the Scottish Government takes over the training schemes that replace the Work Programme these will be voluntary, but jobcentre sanctions will still continue, and David Webster’s most recent report gives considerable cause for concern. Also, the Scottish Government has just let us know – in response to an enquiry we sent them – that although no new people will be sent to the Work Programme from April, the existing contracts stipulate that people already on the scheme will have to serve their full two years.
David Webster’s latest analysis of the DWP’s sanctions statistics also draws on the reports published by the National Audit Office in November and the Public Accounts Committee last month. He informs as that, although the sanction rate for people on JSA is the lowest it has been since February 2010, around a third of unemployed people in the UK are now on Universal Credit rather than JSA, and the sanction rate here appears to be much greater. The DWP haven’t got round to producing statistics yet, but the National Audit Office reports that you are almost twice (1.8 times) as likely to be referred for a sanction if you are on Universal Credit than if you are on JSA. With more people moving to Universal Credit all the time, as well as its much harsher hardship rules, this is very worrying. There has also been a small increase in the proportion of sanctions for people on ESA and pushed into mandatory work related activities, and a Government Green Paper produced in October put forward the idea of extending the sanctions regime to the ESA Support Group.
The statistics suggest that far from being used as a last resort for the more recalcitrant cases, as the DWP claims, JSA sanctions are just as likely to be given to someone only recently out of work as to someone who has been unemployed for a long time. People who are long-time unemployed tend to have been sanctioned more often, but only in line with their longer time on JSA.
The National Audit Office report confirms that the rise and fall in JSA sanctions reflects changes in management pressure on Jobcentre staff to refer people for sanctions. It also reveals that since 2013 some sanctions decisions have been made by jobcentre staff and not a remote and unapproachable ‘decision maker’ – and that the official guidance note insist that claimants are not made aware of this.
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The other major issue that we keep coming across is people having problems with ESA. Last week’s stall was no exception, and a couple of folk had an additional problem. Because they had applied and been refused ESA in the past, they had not been awarded the usual ‘Assessment Phase’ ESA of £73.10 a week while they waited for their Work Capability Assessment. We have checked with the Child Poverty Action Group, and what you need to do in these circumstances is apply for JSA, just as you would while you wait for a Mandatory Reconsideration to be looked at. The DWP have effectively said that you are fit for work, so although you have put in an ESA claim and are waiting for a Work Capability Assessment, you can apply for an out-of-work benefit and this is the only way you will get any money. Once your JSA claim has been accepted you can then get a doctor’s note for an extended period of sickness, like anyone else on JSA. Also, as in other cases when you are in difficult circumstances, you can always try contacting the Assessors and making the argument for an early assessment. (We should just add that a second ESA claim will only be considered at all if it is for a different condition to the one that was refused or your condition has got significantly worse.)
Luckily, our stall coincided with a Welfare Rights drop-in session in the shopping centre nearby, so we were able to send them a steady stream of people with problems. Other issues included a man who had recently come out of prison to find that not only was he homeless but his DLA and ESA had both been stopped leaving him with no money. He had been refused a Scottish Welfare Fund emergency grant on the grounds that he was staying in a hostel that provided a daily meal, but he told us that for other things he was shoplifting.
We were also able to let someone know that the jobcentre was being incorrect in signing him onto Universal Credit when he should still be eligible for contribution based JSA; to inform someone else that if her sister had indeed been refused Universal Credit because she was pregnant this was not right and she should get help; and to commiserate with someone who had been sent over from Arbroath in search of a job that turned out to have been completely misrepresented by the Arbroath Jobcentre. We also went in with the man we had helped the previous week to ensure that his sick note was indeed accepted OK.
Among the people going in and out of the buroo were some soldiers carrying out a bit of economic conscription among the unemployed. We were told they’ve been in there quite a bit lately.
Thanks to Gordon, Tony and Ailsa.