The targeting, severity and impact of sanctions on benefit claimants needs urgent review

This is the edited text of a speech I made today in the House of Commons, in a debate I initiated on the many cases of sanctions being wrongfully applied to benefit recipients, calling on the Government to review the targeting, severity and impact of such sanctions.

The process of sanctioning benefit recipients is now being used on an enormous scale—almost 1 million sanctions a year. Even the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank acknowledged in a report published last month that about 68,000 benefit claimants each year are having their welfare payments stopped unfairly. Given that the penalty for the first infringement is the loss of benefit for four weeks, for the second the loss of benefits for three months and for the third the loss of benefits for three years, the number of people being driven into destitution by administrative diktat is enormous. Even the Policy Exchange admits that 8% of that number should never have been sanctioned.

I presume that everyone accepts that fall-back sanctions have to be applied in extreme cases where there is deliberate and real non co-operation with the obligation to try to find work and where no good reasons have been found for such behaviour. Those sanctions should be proportionate and reasonable and not exercised punitively or with a view to achieving targets or objectives—whatever we call them—for removing people from the unemployment list.

From the evidence that I have collected from my constituency surgery, Citizens Advice, YMCA, the excellent Work and Pensions Committee report on this issue and the Library, it is abundantly clear that the standards that the DWP likes to claim always apply in sanctioning cases far too often certainly do not. I wish to cite a number of cases drawn directly from those sources.

A security guard at a jobcentre turned away a man with learning disabilities who had arrived 20 minutes early to sign on. The man then returned two minutes late to sign on and had his JSA sanctioned for 4 weeks.

A man was sanctioned for four weeks because he had not known about an appointment as the letter had been sent to an address that he had left a year ago, even though Jobcentre Plus was aware of his current address.

A woman claiming employment and support allowance had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and had given the back-to-work scheme provider a list of her hospital appointments. She was sanctioned for failing to attend an appointment on the middle day of her three-day hospital stay. The woman had two daughters but her ESA was reduced to £28 a week. She asked for reconsideration, but had heard nothing five weeks later.

A woman was sanctioned for failing to attend provider-led training when the receptionist had rung to tell her not to come in because the trainer was ill. She was subsequently told that she should have attended to sign the attendance register.

A woman whose ESA was sanctioned had her benefit reduced from £195 to less than £50 per fortnight because she missed a back-to-work scheme appointment owing to illness. Her sister had rung two days beforehand to say that she could not attend and arranged another date, when she did attend.

An epileptic man had his JSA sanctioned for four weeks because he did not attend a back-to-work scheme meeting as his two-year old daughter was taken ill and he was her sole carer that day. He rang the provider in advance, but was told this would still have to be noted as “did not attend”. During the four-week sanction he suffered hunger, hardship, stress and an increase in epileptic attacks, but he was not told about hardship payments or food banks or how to appeal the sanction decision.

Lastly, a man in Yorkshire and Humber was sanctioned for allegedly failing to attend back-to-work scheme events. He had in fact attended, and the provider had no record of any failures. His hardship request was not processed, his housing benefit was stopped, and he fell into rent arrears and had no money for food, gas or electricity.

These are not isolated or exceptional cases. Jobcentres Plus have the right to “reconsider”, which is a euphemistic term, and they sometimes do, but appeals often take three or more months, and are extremely bureaucratic, long-winded and difficult. Far more effort should be put in before the decision is taken to sanction, so that we get sensible decisions and long appeal procedures are not required.

Before I turn to what should be done to change policies and procedures that are patently not working properly, I want to make two wider points. First, everyone who can do so should seek work. The overwhelming majority of the jobless are desperate to find work. However, when 2.4 million people are on the dole queues today and there are only 558,000 vacancies, three out of every four simply cannot find a job whatever they do. A report in the Financial Times this week says that there are 3 million under-employed people who would be keen to work full time if only the jobs were available. The real problem in Britain today is not people failing to try to get work, but the Chancellor’s obsessional austerity policies that contract the economy and fail to provide the job opportunities that people are desperately looking for.

I do not object to the use of sanctions in the tiny number of cases in which they might be needed as long as they are proportionate and reasonable. However, I do object to the hounding of some of the most vulnerable people in our society, often for trivial, ill-considered or utterly unjustified reasons, and driving them into destitution when those who caused the financial crash and the longest recession in this country for 140 years get no sanction at all. It is a classic case of one law for the rich and another for the poor.

What should be done? Plenty. Sanctioning is being used on far too large a scale. The practice is not only unduly harsh and, obviously, causes severe hardship, but is often counter-productive. The YMCA cites three people’s comments about its effects. One says:

I was unable to look for work as much as I could before”.

Another says:

It stopped me from searching for work as I had no money to get to different employers”.

A third person says:

My focus turned to survival rather than gaining employment”.

Citizens Advice makes the crucial observation that front-line advisers do not have sufficient time to get to know a claimant and understand their needs. That explains why there are so many reports of cases such as that of a person with no computer skills being required to apply for work online, a person with no driving licence who is required to apply for a job for which driving is essential, and a wheelchair user who is required to apply for a job that is physically demanding.

Benefit off-flow—a horrible bureaucratic phrase that treats human beings like counters—is, perversely, the key performance measure used by Jobcentre Plus. Disallowances—that is the euphemism used by the Department for Work and Pensions—are included in the off-flow data for people coming off the unemployment list, so staff have an in-built incentive to use them to achieve what they perceive their management expect of them.

Much more could be done to prevent situations that cause sanctioning from arising in the first place because it is clear that in a great many cases people simply do not understand what is required of them. Regrettably, there is a toxic yet pervasive culture in Jobcentre Plus of “Sanction first; think later”, as is shown by the shockingly large number of sanctions against young people—there were 39,000 last year—that are subsequently overturned or, to use that wonderfully euphemistic word, “reconsidered”. Serious, thoughtful effort is needed to do everything possible to secure compliance, with which we all agree, without a sanction being necessary. There should be more common-sense discretion and much less of a rush to action: action should be taken only as a last resort.

Much more attention should be paid to the impact of sanctioning on claimants. An Oxfam report published last May estimated that 500,000 people were reliant on food aid—I suspect that that figure has now nearly doubled—and that more than half of people who turned to food banks did so a direct result of having their benefit payments delayed, reduced or withdrawn altogether. In 21st century Britain, can forcing hundreds of thousands of people onto food aid, which is usually associated with third-world countries, conceivably be justified when the root cause of the problem is the Chancellor’s failure to grow the economy and create jobs because of his obsession with prolonged austerity? I think not, which is why I submit to the House that there is an urgent need, as my motion demands, to review the targeting, severity and impact of sanctioning as it is currently applied.

14 thoughts on “The targeting, severity and impact of sanctions on benefit claimants needs urgent review

  1. I got sanctioned for asking for help in appealing my esa being stopped as I was told I had to sign on and I am not able to work so signing on as fit to work would have been illegal.

  2. “However, when 2.4 million people are on the dole queues today and there are only 558,000 vacancies, three out of every four simply cannot find a job whatever they do.”

    I would actually dispute those figures, at one point a couple of years back the ONS was citing a figure of about 36 applicants for every vacancy, but they’ve probably changed the way they calculate it again since then.

    “Everyone who can work should be actively seeking work?”

    Well yes in principle certainly, but in practice most applicants for most jobs will always be unsuccessful and the unsuccessful applicants will largely be from the same group who are being left further and further behind at every turn of screw, generally though no fault of their own.

    The Work Program which is supposed to helping such people back into work is really just a nasty and shabby racket preying on both unemployed and the taxpayer alike and intended only to provide the likes of Pound-land with unpaid labour and little else.

    This whole notion of systematically penalizing completely innocent people for failing to get jobs that don’t actually exist in first place is both flawed and evil.

    There may indeed be groups of unemployed people who have become utterly demoralized and reconciled to life on benefits or that are so idle and shiftless that they don’t care, but to rationalize this punitive and vindictive employment and befits policy on this basis is simply dishonest, the majority of people would far rather we working but probably aren’t going to have that opportunity no matter how hard they try.

    All that will happen in too many cases is that people stripped of even their basic right to substance will have no real option but resort increasingly to various forms of crime and violence.

    As I commented previous one problem of these cost saving polices is that in too many instances they’ don’t really save money at all, they simply displace the cost onto the already overstretched criminal justice by which time the real cost has escalated massively.

    Stupid and short sighted.

  3. Agree entirely with that J.P. except you missed out the people who can’t work because of medical conditions who are being declared fit on the basis of a target biased idiot sheet, and someone sitting behind a computer who has never had any contact declaring you can work, being left with no means of support.

  4. As a Jobseeker having been sanctioned I appreciate your speech very much indeed and I will remeber you for it.

  5. ‎How about a different method of applying sanctions?

    I have been thinking on this and had an idea.

    Sanctions are in some respects ‘fines’ for those on benefits. I know there is the idea to charge people for appealing to tribunals, which if you have no income will be impossible for many, even those who deserve ‎to be able to appeal and severe hardship will be a result.

    What about reversing the way sanctions are delivered?

    Instead of the job centre staff applying sanctions‎ and then it going to tribunal, what about it being the tribunal, after a full consideration of any defence? In a way making it a real ‘fine’ but without causing hardship to those who do not deserve it. It would also then be the tribunal service’s duty if a sanction is warranted after full consideration, to state how much the sanction is for, how long and therefore makes it proportionate.

    This way, those who are successful in their case don’t pay costs, as they rightly shouldn’t, but in the same vein those who are unsuccessful and do have sanctions applied have the costs imposed, like those found guilty in a criminal case.

    It would I believe also reduce those appealing if the letter of the law has been applied. I also point out that I am surprised nobody has taken the current system to court as a breach of Article 7 ECHR ‘punishment without law’ if I have remembered the articles correctly.

    I would also suggest, so that if adopted the tribunals service isn’t too clogged to implement this new system, that an ‘amnesty’ is granted to all those currently appealing sanctions so that the system starts on a fresh footing. Although this may involve cost to allow them to carry on their claims and backdating, it would I suggest be mitigated by savings on tribunal service time and costs for printing, letters sent and documents generated for the appeals process as well as legal representatives costs all round.

    Or the other method, that would also reduce hardship could be that it is applied as a ‘fine’. A ‘four week sanction’ could be seen as (rough estimate of the rates) £71 pw x 4 = £284. Instead of dis-allowing a person’s money completely for 4 weeks, do it as a ‘debt’ being paid back at not too high a rate. So if they get a 4 week sanction, they continue to get money for those weeks, however £284 is slowly taken from the overall allowance, say £5 a week so they get £66 a week instead of £71. Again though I believe if this was used it would be better if applied by a tribunal after a full consideration of the circumstances. This done so that at least they are not in severe hardship for weeks on end with potentially absolutely nothing.

    I hope that these ideas will be considered, and that ‎someone will get back to me to explain why it is not possible if that is the case.

  6. The problem is the sanctions no matter how you apply them, if the tribunal only asks the question has the assessor applied the letter of the law then it is not doing its job correctly because the letter of the law does not actually require an honest assessment to be made. Maybe if instead of always attacking the claimant the assessing body was fined for every time it was successfully appealed against we wouldn’t get so many wrong assessments in the first place, because under the current system private companies like ATOS Serco and Capita are making a fortune out of creating repeat assessments, whilst the claimants are being left without help.

  7. @Barry Davies

    I was writing on on sanctions applied to claimants which is in a different (albeit only slightly) category to those who have been assessed for/by WCA.

    However I agree with you. This could be a way to force those who are assessors to do so in a fairer better way. Make it clear that should someone make a successful appeal against their decision, they are responsible all down the line for the costs. Cost of tribunal and legal representatives. Costs for all documents and letters. And finally the cost of repaying the individual claimant the backdated money. Maybe this would help?

  8. Paul, I Couldn’t agree more, but don’t forget compensation for anxiety, depression and consequential loss imposed on claimants by advisers and decision makers who know in advance, and are fully aware of the effects of their criminal acts. There is no excuse for any of these criminals. It is in fact advisers, decision makers, and of course the ultimate decision maker himself, Iain Duncan Smith, that should be brought to justice for crimes against humanity.

  9. Yes should have said that as well. I think that should go for those who appeal a current sanction and those with the WCA.

  10. My friend is being harassed by the Job centre. She is due to have a hip replacement on Saturday she also has Angina. However the job centre refuse to leave her alone. They contact her on a regular basis asking if she is looking for work. They wrote this morning to say that they will be phoning again 10 days after her hip replacement to ask her what she has done about looking for work. They have been clear that she must make herself available for that call. She will not have even had her stitches removed. Her doctor has written asking them to leave her alone. The answer is we are complying with legislation so we will keep phoning. They have also advised her that there will be another face to face interview in the next 12 weeks, which happens to be the period needed for rehabilitation. I was a Full time trade union official for 28 years. I am appalled. I am asking someone to raise this case please. She is totally stressed because of the pressure they are putting on her.


  11. Just a point on this bit:

    “Citizens Advice makes the crucial observation that front-line advisers do not have sufficient time to get to know a claimant and understand their needs. That explains why there are so many reports of cases such as that of a person with no computer skills being required to apply for work online, a person with no driving licence who is required to apply for a job for which driving is essential, and a wheelchair user who is required to apply for a job that is physically demanding.”

    It’s not that JC+ workers don’t get to know their clients, it’s that they either don’t care and have to meet targets, (despite there being no targets, officially…) or that they are malicious bullies given free reign to power trip on people without recourse.

  12. It’s a rotten system, that needs a complete overhaul. Job Centre staff are acting illegally and must be brought to justice. They are willing conspirators and act like Nazi collaborators. We must fight them and expose their abuse of ordinary people. Cameron is as guilty as the disgusting Smith.

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