Tagged: back-to-work schemes

MPs Call For Independent Review Into ‘Punitive’ Benefit Sanctions

A full independent review should be established to investigate whether benefit sanctions are being applied ‘appropriately, fairly and proportionately’, says the Work and Pensions Committee.

The Committee reiterates this recommendation, originally made in January 2014 but rejected by the Government, in the light of new evidence which raises concerns about the approach being adopted in a number of individual Jobcentres, and more broadly, including concerns about whether targets for sanctions exist.

The report calls for the independent review also to examine the legislative framework for benefit sanctions policy, to ensure that the basis for sanctioning is well-defined, and that safeguards to protect the vulnerable are clearly set out.

Dame Anne Begg MP, Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, said:

“Benefit sanctions are controversial because they withhold subsistence-level benefits from people who may have little or no other income.

“We agree that benefit conditionality is necessary but it is essential that policy is based on clear evidence of what works in terms of encouraging people to take up the support which is available to help them get back into work. The policy must then be applied fairly and proportionately.

“The system must also be capable of identifying and protecting vulnerable people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities. And it should avoid causing severe financial hardship. The system as currently applied does not always achieve this.”

She added:

“Recent research suggests that benefit sanctions are contributing to food poverty.

“No claimant should have their benefit payment reduced to zero where they are at risk of severe financial hardship, to the extent of not being able to feed themselves or their families, or pay their rent.

“DWP’s (Department for Work and Pensions) discretionary hardship payment system is intended to prevent this happening, but it does not always do so.

“This is often because JSA hardship payments are not available until the 15th day of a sanction period. It is not reasonable to expect people to live without any source of income for 2 weeks. DWP should make all hardship payments available from day one of a sanction period.

“Problems also arise because the claimant is not aware of the application process for a hardship payment or because they are put off applying because of the difficulty in understanding and navigating the system.

“This needs to change. DWP should not wait for the claimant to apply for a hardship payment. It should initiate the process itself, and then coordinate the decision on hardship payments with decision-making on the sanction itself, particularly where the claimant has dependent children or is vulnerable.”

Investigating the deaths of vulnerable benefit claimants

The report notes that DWP currently investigates all deaths of benefit claimants “where suicide is associated with DWP activity”, and in other cases where the death of a vulnerable benefit claimant is brought to its attention, through a system of internal “peer reviews”. Since February 2012, DWP has carried out 49 peer reviews following the death of a benefit claimant.

DWP has stated that 33 of the 49 cases have resulted in recommendations for change at either local or national level.

However, it was unable to confirm in how many cases the claimant was subject to a benefit sanction, or provide any details about how its policies or procedures had been altered in response to the death of a claimant.

Dame Anne Begg said:

“We have asked DWP to confirm the number of internal peer reviews in which the claimant was subject to a benefit sanction at the time of death, and the result of these reviews in terms of changes to DWP policy.

“It is important that all agencies involved in the provision of public services are scrutinised, to ensure that lessons are learned after members of the public are let down by the system, particularly where the failures of a public body may have contributed to a death.

“We believe that a new independent body should be established to fulfil this role.”

Increasing the evidence base on financial sanctions

The Committee finds that more “active” regimes, in which unemployed claimants are required to do more to find work, have been shown to be relatively effective; however, evidence on the specific part by played by financial sanctions within successful active regimes is limited and far from clear-cut.

The report calls for a series of evaluations to increase the evidence base, particularly around the efficacy and impacts of the new sanctions regime introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012.

Dame Anne Begg said:

“The Government introduced longer minimum sanction periods without first testing their likely impacts on claimants.

“The minimum sanction period is now four weeks, rather than one week. It is important that the impacts of the new sanctions regime are properly evaluated.

“There is currently no evidence on whether the application, or deterrent threat, of a four-week sanction makes it more, or less, likely that a claimant will engage with employment support or gain work.

“This is an area of policy which must be based on robust evidence. The Department needs to demonstrate that the application of the new sanctions regime is not intended to be purely punitive.”

Full implementation of the Oakley review

The Oakley Review of Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) sanctions in relation to Back to Work Schemes, published in July 2014, made a number of recommendations aimed at improving some aspects of the sanctions system. This has already led to welcome changes, including improvements to DWP’s information to claimants about the sanctioning process, and the clarity of its claimant letters.

However, a number of the Oakley recommendations are yet to be fully implemented, in part due to the requirement for legislative change and/or contractual negotiations with Work Programme providers.

The Committee believes that DWP should take more urgent steps to fully implement the outstanding recommendations.

Dame Anne Begg commented:

“DWP must take a more common-sense approach to mandatory Work Programme activity and sanction referrals.

“For example, it makes no sense, and is a considerable waste of administrative resources, for Work Programme providers to have to refer a claimant back to DWP for a sanction decision, even where they know that the claimant had a perfectly good reason for not meeting a particular requirement.

“In the negotiations to re-let the Work Programme contracts in 2017, DWP should prioritise the development of a more flexible approach to the setting of mandatory conditions.

“There is also widespread support for pre-sanction written warnings and non-financial sanctions. The Department should get on with piloting this approach.

“If it requires legislation, the Department should bring it forward as soon as possible in the new Parliament.”

Source –  Welfare Weekly,  24 Mar 2015

http://www.welfareweekly.com/mps-call-for-independent-review-into-punitive-benefit-sanctions/

High Court challenges UK work schemes

The High Court has ruled emergency laws underpinning a government back-to-work scheme are “incompatible” with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The ruling stems from a case brought by Cait Reilly in 2012, who said being forced to work for free at a Poundland store breached her human rights.

The government brought in new rules in 2013 allowing unpaid work schemes to continue pending further legal appeals.

Ministers said they were “disappointed” by the ruling and would appeal.

But lawyers for Miss Reilly claimed the government owed about £130m to people who had fallen foul of the retrospective legislation and ministers should admit they made a mistake.

The 24-year old graduate challenged the legality of an unpaid work placement she undertook in 2011, part of the government’s “mandatory work activity” programme.

She said that she was told that if she did not agree to take part in the scheme, which she said involved stacking shelves, she would lose her Jobseeker’s Allowance.

The government was forced to pass emergency legislation amending the scheme last year after Court of Appeal ruled that the regulations underpinning it did not comply with existing laws giving the Department for Work and Pensions the power to introduce the programme

The legislation was designed to reinforce the rules to make it clear that claimants must do all they can to find work in order to claim benefits and to ensure the government did not have to repay money to claimants who had not complied with the conditions of their benefit claim.

But Mrs Justice Lang, sitting at the High Court in London, ruled on Friday that the retrospective legislation interfered with the “right to a fair trial” under Article Six of the Convention on Human Rights.

The Department for Work and Pensions said it was “disappointed” by the ruling – which it said applied to a minority of claimants – and would launch an appeal.

We disagree with the judgment on the legislation and are disappointed,” a spokeswoman said.

“It was discussed, voted on and passed by Parliament. While this applies to only a minority of past cases and does not affect the day to day business of our Jobcentres, we think this is an important point and will appeal.”

She said the legislation remained “in force” and the government would not be compensating anyone who had been docked benefits pending the outcome of its appeal.

But Paul Heron, a solicitor for Public Interest Lawyers, said it was a “massively significant” ruling and the DWP’s decision to appeal against it would be a further blow to the “upwards of 3,000 cases sitting in the tribunal system waiting for this judgement“.

He claimed people were owed anything from four weeks benefit, about £250, to several thousand pounds and were having to mostly represent themselves at tribunals.

He told BBC News it was “about time the DWP just held their hands up, admit they made an error, and pay people the money they were entitled to at the time. That is what a responsible government would do.”

The back-to-work schemes have been condemned by critics as “slave labour” because they involve work without pay but are seen by supporters as a good way of getting the unemployed back into the world of work.

The Supreme Court upheld the Court of Appeal’s ruling on the regulations last year although the judges also rejected claims that the schemes were “exploitative” and amounted to “forced labour“.

Ministers said that the most recent legal judgement had upheld this view.

“We’re pleased the Court recognised that if claimants do not play by the rules and meet their conditions to do all they can to look for work and get a job, we can stop their benefits,” the spokeswoman added.

Poundland, one of several employers which took part in the scheme, withdrew from it in 2012.

Source –  BBC News,  04 July 2014

Labour To Hand Lucrative ‘Workfare’ Contracts To Smaller Companies

A future Labour Government would consider handing lucrative Work Programme contracts, dubbed ‘workfare’ by opponents, to smaller businesses and charities in a bid to cut back on the number of large providers involved in controversial back-to-work schemes.

>  Small providers will then proceed to grow into big providers (re-employing all the crap staff from the ousted providers along the way) and we’re back to square one.

And whoever provides it, workfare is still forced labour.

Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Rachel Reeves MP said that she plans to “challenge the status quo” of Government commissioned Work Programme contracts by opening up the scheme to smaller providers.

 Back-to-work services could be devolved and decentralised away from Whitehall, by allowing local governments and social enterprises to develop and outsource schemes better tailored to the meet the needs and requirements of locally unemployed people.

Ms Reeves told the Financial Times that new providers may be required to pay their employee’s a living wage if they wish to bid for contracts. She said that existing providers should be worried by her plans but acknowledged that they come with potential “cost implications” for a future Labour Government.

Some of Britain’s largest charities recently announced that they were to boycott a similar scheme to the Work Programme. Hundreds of charities and 13 councils signed a pledge to boycott Community Work Placements, which form part of a new Help To Work Programme, where the long-term unemployed are required to meet with a Jobcentre adviser every day, attend training or commit to six-months “voluntary work” in their local area. Failure to comply could result in benefit claimants having their payments docked or stopped completely for a pre-determined length of time, otherwise known as a ‘benefit sanction’.

Opponents of back-to-work schemes, like the Work Programme and Community Work Placements, say they amount to a form of forced labour because of an ever-existing threat of sanction for non-compliance, as well as gifting employers with free labour enabling them to escape hiring paid workers and keep wage costs down.

Unemployed people taking part in these schemes claim their benefits have sometimes been cut for ridiculous and over-zealous reason, such as failing to turn up to a placement because of being in hospital or delays to local bus services, as well as other reasons.

Labour will have to go much further if they are to satisfy opponents of these schemes, who say they would accept no less than complete abolition of all “slave labour” programmes, and the end of private company involvement in social security benefits and the welfare state.

> They’ll have to go a damn sight further than they ever seem likely to, now that the extent of their ambitions seem limited to being the Tory-lite party.

 Source –  Welfare News Service, 24 June 2014
http://welfarenewsservice.com/labour-hand-workfare-contracts-smaller-companies/