A group of churches and charities have called on the UK government to hold an urgent independent review into the benefit sanctions regime.
The group argue that the government has failed to heed the recommendation of the Work and Pensions Select Committee, who called for a full independent review of the benefit sanctions system earlier this year.
Dame Anne Begg, who chaired the Committee’s investigation, said:
“The implementation of the present sanction regime is controversial with the government claiming it is effective in helping people into work while many others say sanctions are causing real distress to families and are actually acting as a barrier to participation.”
She added: “If sanctions work as a deterrent, why are so many people still facing multiple sanctions?
“As there are so many questions about the effects on people who have been sanctioned, it is time the government implemented the recommendation of my Select Committee in the last Parliament to carry out a full, independent review of the whole sanction regime.
“Many believe that sanctions are being applied to the wrong people for often trivial reasons and are the cause of the increased use of foodbanks. Only an independent review can get to the truth of what is actually happening so that government policy can be based on evidence and not seen as merely punitive.”
In a 100 day period last year, 346,256 people who were on Jobseeker’s Allowance and 35,554 people on Employment Support Allowance (ESA) were referred for sanctions. These resulted in 175,177 sanctions for Jobseekers and 11,129 for sick and disabled people claiming ESA.
92,558 were blamed on a bureaucratic error.
The call for a review is supported by the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Church of Scotland, the Church in Wales, the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and by charities Church Action on Poverty, Gingerbread and Mind.
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The Committee reiterates this recommendation, originally made in January 2014 but rejected by the Government, in the light of new evidence which raises concerns about the approach being adopted in a number of individual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.”
“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
It remains uncertain how DWP will manage the housing costs element of Universal Credit without increased risks of fraud and error, warns a Work and Pensions Committee report.
The Government has stated that an IT system (the Integrated Risk and Intelligence Service (IRIS)) will allow it to cross-check data and provide similar safeguards against fraudulent claims under Universal Credit as are currently operated by local authorities within the Housing Benefit system.
Commenting on the report, the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, Dame Anne Begg MP, said:
“Through the use of RTI—real-time information on PAYE earnings—Universal Credit has the potential over the longer term to substantially reduce fraud and error in the benefits system. However, this could be seriously undermined because of the uncertainty about how DWP will administer the housing element of Universal Credit without increased risks of fraud and error.
Under the current housing benefit system, local authorities can cross-check claims across a range of data relating to other council services. Unless DWP is able to cross-check Universal Credit claims in a similar way it may be less effective in tackling fraud and error.
It is vital that a fully developed and tested IT system, which allows DWP to cross-check data, is in place before Universal Credit is implemented on a national scale. Worryingly, it appears that there is no automated system in use in the Pathfinders and is not clear when or how a system will be available.”
> It appears that UC has been developed on the basis of “we dont know how to do something, but we hope we might stumble across a solution before the system is due to go nationwide.”
The official estimated benefit fraud rate is 0.7% of total benefits expenditure. The general public’s misperception is that it is some 34 times higher. To reduce the risk of confusion or conflation in media reporting, DWP should publish statistics relating to the estimated level of benefit fraud on a separate day from those related to error in the benefits system.
> Trouble is, neither the DWP or elements of the media have any interest in presenting the true picture. They want to encourage the skivers image.
Dame Anne Begg MP said:
“Statistics relating to benefit fraud are often conflated in media reporting with those relating to error; and people’s perceptions of the level of benefit fraud are completely out of kilter with the official estimate. This is not helped by the Government publishing all of the statistics simultaneously. Whilst we understand that the boundary between claimant error and fraud is not always clear, we believe that publishing separate summaries of estimated fraud and error rates would be helpful.”
On progress towards fraud and error reduction targets
Fraud and error rates have plateaued from 2005/06 to 2012/13, despite an “uncompromising” and “zero tolerance” approach announced by the coalition Government. DWP will only meet the target set in 2010, to reduce the estimated overpayment rate to no more than 1.7% by April 2015, if it employs innovative approaches which are aligned with the known risk factors associated with each benefit.
Dame Anne Begg MP said:
“Despite DWP devoting considerable effort and resources to fraud and error reduction, rates have hardly changed since 2005/06 and estimated overpayments remain at around 2% of total benefit expenditure. If the ambitious target is to be met, innovative approaches are needed, not more of the same.”
On innovative ways of tackling fraud and error
DWP and HMRC should explore, with the Payments Council and the banking sector, the feasibility of establishing a system which flags up potentially incorrect benefits and Tax Credits payments, using data held by payments systems operators and banks on the types of payments due to enter individual bank accounts.
In the longer term biometric identity systems could have an important role to play in identity verification processes across government. The Cabinet Office is working on a government-wide system; the Government should evaluate the benefits of biometric identity verification in the social security system and more widely across public services.
Dame Anne Begg MP said:
“DWP should adopt a secure and consistent approach to public and private sector data-sharing. This should include exploring the feasibility of a system that uses data held by banks and payment system operators to identify potentially incorrect benefit payments.
The Government should also carefully consider innovative identity verification technology, such as the voice-recognition system now used in Australian public services.”
On the implementation of the Single Fraud Investigation Service (SFIS)
The Committee recommends that SFIS, a DWP-run service which will investigate all social security benefit fraud across DWP, HMRC and local authorities, be implemented, as far as is practicable, in line with the roll out of Universal Credit. The Government’s current timetable for SFIS implementation would see responsibility for Housing Benefit fraud investigations transfer from local authorities to DWP before the Department plans to take responsibility for housing costs support under Universal Credit across the country.
Dame Anne Begg MP said:
“SFIS is, in principle, a good idea but it makes no sense to rush its implementation, ahead of the roll out of Universal Credit. As far as possible SFIS and Universal Credit implementation should be aligned, otherwise there could be increased risks of fraud in relation to housing costs support. The Government also needs to pause to allow negotiations with local government and the relevant trade unions about the transfer of staff into DWP.”
Source – Welfare News Service, 15 May 2014
Single parents with children under the age of five face the threat of ‘punitive’ benefit sanctions, due to the introduction of tough new rules and over-stretched jobcentre’s, the charity Gingerbread has warned.
Jobcentre staff have been given new powers to remove benefits from single parents with young children in receipt of Income Support, otherwise known as sanctioning, should they fail to adhere to strict new requirements which may include attending more jobcentre appointments, participation in training programmes or work experience placements, depending on the age of their child(ren).
Gingerbread say the new rules ‘focus too heavily on sanctions’ in what the charity has described as a ‘tick box exercise’, rather than providing single parents with tailored support which would enable them ‘to get work ready’.
Failure to comply could result in single-parents having their Income Support payments cut by 20 per cent a week for an ‘indefinite period’. Sanctions will be lifted if and when those parents comply to the requirements imposed upon them or are able to prove their benefits should not have been cut in the first place.
Gingerbread claim that they are already hearing from single parents with children as young as six months who have wrongfully had their benefits sanctioned after being told they must begin looking for work.
The charity has drawn attention to the number of Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) claimants who have wrongfully been hit with benefit sanctions and are having those decisions overturned following appeal (nearly four in 10 or 38%). Gingerbread has expressed concerns that 423,000 single-parents in receipt of Income Support could be subjected to the same fate.
Gingerbread chief executive Fiona Weir said:
“Many single parents do want to work before their child reaches school age, some decide that’s not right for their family, and others have little choice financially. Whenever parents decide they’re ready to go to work, they should get support that helps them do just that; but we’re concerned that the new rules will become little more than a tick box exercise with punitive sanctions attached.
“We know that single parents are already often wrongly sanctioned and, based on the calls our helpline is already getting, we fear that this situation will only get worse as these new rules are introduced.”
Gingerbread have called on the coalition government to ensure that jobcentre staff fully understand the new rules to reduce the probability of single-parents wrongfully having their benefits slashed. They are also urging the government to consider investing in ‘voluntary tailored support and training for single parents’.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee has recently recommended that an independent review be carried out in order to determine whether some benefit claimants are having their payments docked inappropriately.
Referring to the use of benefit sanctions against JSA claimants, chair of the Work and Pensions Select Committee Dame Anne Begg said:
“The number of JSA Sanctions are at a 12 month high, and probably the highest ever on record. Yet, we don’t even know if these Sanctions are working. There have been many examples of people being sanctioned and not knowing why. If the aim of a sanction is to change peoples’ behaviour then people need to know why their benefits have been stopped otherwise it is just a punitive punishment which is trying and save money.”
Source – Welfare News Service 29 April 2014