Looking at a graph of benefit sanctions statistics since 2010, it has more in common with a nerve-racking rollercoaster ride than a DWP dataset. For many benefit claimants, that’s exactly what it has been.
Between 2010 and 2013 the number of sanctions against people claiming Job Seekers Allowance more than doubled, from a rate of 533,000 a year to an eye-watering peak of over one million. Since then they have almost halved, raising the question: why the great rise and fall in sanctions in the space of just a few years and where will they go from here?
Benefit sanctions (where a claimants benefits are reduced or stopped for a period of time) are a pertinent issue for Community Links. Through our delivery of the Work Programme we are obliged to ‘raise doubts’, often leading to claimants being sanctioned, while through our advice services we regularly support clients who have been sanctioned. For many years, Community Links – alongside others in the third sector and academia – has campaigned against the punitive use of sanctions as they have driven many of our service users into destitution and away from the Government’s stated aim of encouraging people into work.
Why the great rise?
In 2010, the Coalition Government’s new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, signalled the starting gun in a statement to the House of Commons: “we expect co‐operation from those who are seeking work. That is why we are developing a regime of sanctions for those who refuse to play by the rules.”
The impact was immediate, resulting in more Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) and Employment Support Allowance (ESA) claimants being sanctioned and more people likely to receive multiple sanctions. At the same time sanctions also increased in severity, in terms of length for JSA claimants, and in terms of length and income reduction for ESA.
Adding to this, the numbers of people unfairly sanctioned also increased dramatically. One of our service users, who was strongly work-orientated, explained how powerless and destitute not being able to attend a job interview due to an incorrect decision made her feel.
“I had times when I literally had no food and no gas. I just lay in my bed looking at the walls. I couldn’t travel or make any calls. I couldn’t even afford to get the bus to sign-on, but I knew that if I didn’t go I’d be suspended again. It’s like a vicious cycle. I turned up to the Jobcentre actually hungry. I hadn’t eaten for two days and I was scared that if I was five minutes late they might suspend me again – it really wasn’t easy.”
The increased numbers of claimants being sanctioned for failing to participate in training and employment support – largely via the Work Programme – had a significant impact on the overall rise in sanctions, and in 2014 this accounted for 31% of all sanction decisions. Another factor attributed to the rise was the DWP raising its off-flow targets (the removal of claimants from the unemployment register) for Jobcentres. Although the Government has repeatedly stated that sanctions targets do not exist and that they are only imposed as a “last resort”, there have been numerous reported incidences of Jobcentre staff being put under pressure to impose financial penalties on benefit claimants in order to meet staff performance standards.
And then the fall?
As with the unprecedented rise, Government have never provided a clear explanation for the precipitous fall in JSA sanctions since their peak in 2013. The fall in JSA claimants (dropping 49% between 2013 and 2015 due to the labour market recovery) obviously had a large part to play. However, the monthly rate of sanctions as a proportion of JSA claimants has also halved during this period, suggesting a significant change in policy.
Other key factors influencing the downward trend have been a reduction in referrals of claimants to the Work Programme and the growing number of claimants being transferred from JSA to Universal Credit (UC), for which sanctions statistics are not yet available.
Whilst the continued demise of sanctions is welcome, and the work of charities and others who influenced this change should be commended, they still cause untold hardship and misery, even if it is for a smaller number of claimants. For many of our clients, a sanction means going hungry, being unable to heat their home, and in some cases not being able to afford the bus fare to meet a Jobcentre advisor in order to find work.
The future of sanctions
The noises from the new Government indicate a potentially more constructive approach to social security. The new Work and Pensions Secretary, Damian Green, has said that there will be ‘no new search for cuts in individual welfare benefits’, and has scrapped reassessments for chronically-ill disabled people seeking to claim ESA. His predecessor had already introduced a “warning period” for those facing a sanction. However, this does not mean that the rollercoaster that many of our most vulnerable service users have been on will not rise again.
A commitment to no new cuts in welfare benefits could in itself be an incentive for Government to seek cost savings through increasing benefit ‘off-flows’ and hence increasing sanction rates. The introduction of in-work conditionality in Universal Credit (UC) and the new Work and Health Programme will introduce new sources of sanctions in the coming years, though it’s still unclear the balance it will adopt between support and punishment.
Community Links will continue to make the case for sanctions to only be used as a last option. In submissions to the Work and Pensions Committee and National Audit Office we have continued our call for a full evidence-based review of the sanctions regime, as well as asking the DWP to provide a clear rationale for applying conditionality to UC claimants in work. We believe that the focus of any regime should be about supporting people into sustainable and fulfilling employment, rather than ensuring compliance, which too often results in destitution on the one hand, or forcing people into unsuitable, low paid insecure work on the other.