Government response to Work & Pensions Committee sanctions report

The statement below is an initial analysis from David Webster, an expert on social security sanctions from Glasgow University, to the changes (and non-changes) on sanctions  by the government following a critical report from the House of Commons Select Committee on Work & Pensions. While there are some concessions, as we reported here recently, sadly, evidence of cruelty and inflexibility remain.

The government’s response to the House of Commons Work & Pensions Committee report on ‘Benefit Sanctions Policy beyond the Oakley Review’ was published yesterday, 22 October. The response itself, together with an accompanying letter from Iain Duncan Smith to the Committee chair, is at
http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/

The accompanying Parliamentary statement by Iain Duncan Smith is at
http://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2015-10-22/HCWS259

Reaction by the Committee chair Frank Field is at
http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/work-and-pensions-committee/news-parliament-2015/benefit-sanctions-committee-report-15-16/

I will be circulating a detailed analysis of the response in the next week or so. Meanwhile, here are the key points about what will and will not change about the sanctions regime as a result of the response:

* The government is continuing to refuse the broad independent review of sanctions which the Committee and others have repeatedly called for.

* Its response (pp.2-3) also deliberately evades the Committee’s specific call for review of the effectiveness of the lengthening of sanctions introduced in 2012.

* The government claims that it will trial a ‘system of warning’ before a sanction is imposed. However the Committee (and Oakley in July 2014) called for a first ‘failure’ to lead to a warning letter, and only a second or subsequent failure to result in a sanction. What the government is proposing is different. It is simply a delay of 14 days in imposing a sanction, during which the claimant will be able to make representations.

* The government has admitted at https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/jsa-sanctions-impact-of-not-sending-written-notifications-to-claimants-jan-2014-to-dec-2014 that 47,239 JSA claimants (6.9%) who were sanctioned in 2014 did not receive notification before the money failed to appear in their account. Applying this percentage to the whole period of the Coalition government, there will have been about 279,000 cases where claimants had their benefit stopped before being notified. This issue was highlighted by Oakley in July 2014. The government now proposes to deal with this by reintroducing computer-generated notification, but admits that this will be unlikely to be 100% successful.

* The current provision that sanctioned claimants, other than arbitrarily-defined ‘vulnerable’, cannot apply for hardship payments for the first two weeks of a sanction is responsible for destitution and food bank use on a large scale. The Committee firmly recommended that all sanctioned claimants should be able to apply from day one. The government has now agreed only to consider extending the definition of ‘vulnerability’ for the purposes of day one application to ‘a wider group of claimants’. Duncan Smith’s parliamentary statement, but not the response itself, specifically mentions people with mental health conditions and the homeless. The government says it has also speeded up the hardship claim process so that awards are paid within 3 days, and that subject to feasibility the decision maker will in future set up an appointment to discuss hardship payments where claimants are ‘vulnerable’ or have children.

* The government has flatly refused the Committee’s recommendation to track what happens to claimants in terms of employment and claimant status after a sanction, in spite of clearly having the capability to do so.

* The government appears to have given up any attempt to ensure that the one third of all sanctioned claimants whose alleged ‘failure’ is not actively seeking work do not wrongly lose housing benefit as a result. These claimants are ‘disentitled’ as well as ‘sanctioned’ and the response (p.5) accepts that HB may be affected as a result. A recent clarificatory circular to local authorities, HB Bulletin U1-2015 (30 Sep 2015) related only to the two thirds of penalties which are purely ‘sanctions’ and not ‘disentitlements’.

 

 

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