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The Committee reiterates this recommendation, originally made in January 2014 but rejected by the Government, in the light of new evidence which raises concerns about the approach being adopted in a number of individual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
> The following was forwarded by email and is reproduced with permission.
Hi,I enjoy reading your blog, I felt i had to write to someone to express my astonishment at the actions of Killingworth (North Tyneside) job centre.
My son has just been sanctioned by them. He asked for a hardship form to get some kind of help.
I know he shouldn’t have done but in filling it in he said he might have to resort to shoplifting to survive !
Very much to my surprise at about 6.30pm tonight was a loud knock on the the door my partner answered to be confronted by 2 policemen.They asked for my son by name, they asked if he had written those things on the from.
He said he had because he was very annoyed with being sanctioned, they asked if he was intending to go shoplifting, he said no, they both laughed at the stupidity of the situation, apologized for disturbing us and left.
I just cannot think why the job centre informed the police as no crime was commited, just them being vindictive i think!
Anyway got that off my chest and keep up the good work!!
> John added that I have contacted my MP Alan Campbell and his assistant spoke to my son and they are taking it up with the jobcentre, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens.
I often think I’m immune to being suprised when it comes to the behaviour of some Jobcentre staff, but the fact that someone actually took it upon themselves to contact the police and make a complaint…I think anyone with any sense would see a comment like that for what it was – an expression of frustration, and surely they must have heard similar sentiments many times.
Perhaps it was the fact it was in writing that caused them to take this action. I guess the moral is, say it but don’t put it in writing.
I just hope the police get back to the complainant and caution them about wasting police time.
> Received via email…
I am a keen follower of your blog and thought you may be interested in this
*I have recently helped a Jobseeker (I’ll call him John) to win an appeal
at the First Tier Tribunal after his benefit was stopped for allegedly
failing to ‘actively seek’ work*.
*About me *
I am a semi-retired business woman and I initially got involved in helping
benefit claimants due the significant and negative impacts of the new
Welfare reforms on some of my family and friends. My deep concern led to offering my services as a volunteer at the CAB and now as a ‘Welfare
Champion’ on a part-time basis. I do this work mainly on a private basis
and receive referrals from various sources. I could not cope with lots of
readers contacting me (I am easily traceable), so for this reason I will
refer to myself as ‘Mary’.
John has worked from the age of 15 and for over 24 years with a few short
breaks, so no-one could ever describe him as a “skiver” or a “shirker”.
However, due to the economic downturn he found himself unemployed for
longer than expected and could no longer afford to run his car; regretfully
he has had to turn down a number of job offers due to the lack of transport.
> I’ve noticed an increasing number of vacancies – usually shiftwork – require the applicant to have their own transport.
At the beginning of 2013 a new Jobseeker Agreement was imposed on John; it required him to take at least 14 steps to look for work – it previously stated 3 as per the current legislation. It also required him to seek work on-line 7 days per week and to register with the DWP Universal Jobmatch site, which incidentally is not mandatory, nor is it a condition for receiving Jobseeker’s Allowance despite what Jobcentre Advisers might tell claimants.
*Jobcentre errors in law and procedure!*
John took 10 strong steps, which included applying for 4-5 jobs to help him
secure employment each week during the period in doubt, but the Jobcentre thought this was not good enough and his benefit was stopped for 4 weeks!
From my experience unless a claimant fulfils every detail of their
agreement the majority will be sanctioned. This is wrong, both legally as
well as procedurally! In this particular case I uncovered numerous
procedural, policy as well as legal mistakes.
*The impact of the Jobcentres mistakes!*
John was completely stunned and bewildered by the sanction; the impact was immediate and significant. He had no money and was unable to source a food parcel or any assistance from Social Services, so he was completely
destitute for 2 weeks.
The regulations do not allow access to an immediate hardship payment if you are not in a vulnerable group I.e., you are sick or, have dependent
children. The hardship payment he received after 2 weeks was £43.02pw (his usual payment is £71.70pw) for the remainder of the sanction period.
He was already struggling financially and feeling low due to being unemployed for over a year and Christmas was on the horizon. Those feelings darkened and he felt suicidal at times, due to his mistreatment by Jobcentre Plus.
He could not pay his bills or afford to eat properly and he certainly could
not afford to buy his children any Christmas gifts.
And, to this day he has still not recovered from the loss of his benefits
(his arrears are pending). The sanction has not made him any more
motivated than he was previously; it has just made him very angry and
mistrustful of Jobcentre Staff, hence the reason he was keen to help others
by sharing this story.
*Sanctions are only used as a last resort!*
The government keeps claiming sanctions are only applied as last resort and if a Jobseeker wilfully does not to keep to their side of the bargain (the
Jobseeker’s Agreement). This certainly is not true in John’s case, so what
is the real reason for the sanction….performance expectations (targets to
you or I), reducing the unemployment count, saving money or all 3?
*Jobseekers being set up to fail by Jobcentre Plus!*
An ex DWP employee has confirmed:
“But the truth is that benefit claimants are being deliberately set up to
fail in order to achieve sanction quotas without regard for natural justice
or their welfare . Staff are being asked to behave in a manner that is against the department’s values of integrity and honesty.”
Suspected criminals are treated more fairly in this country than the sick
and the unemployed; they are innocent until found guilty, receive swift and
free legal assistance, a bed, food, water and a roof over their heads.
In my view all these sanctions are unjustifiable and certainly do not match
the offence. A low level sanction of 4 weeks sanction incurs a c£200
penalty for people over 25 years of age like John, who is already living
well below the bread line according the EU
A speeding ticket is £60 to people who can generally afford to run a car
and the offender is given time to challenge the penalty *before* it is
*What the law says…. *
The *duty to actively seek work* *is not to be found in the job seekers
agreement* but in S7 of the jobseeker’s Act. S7(1), which provides:
*“a person is actively seeking work if he takes in that week such steps as
he could reasonably be expected to have to take in order to have the best
prospects of securing employment.”*
More detail is set out in regulation 18 of the Regulations. Regulation
18(1) provides that:
*”… a person shall be expected to have to take more than two steps in any
week unless taking one or two steps is all that is reasonable for that
person to do in that week.”*
Mr Commissioner Williams held at para 10 & 14 of CJSA/1814/2007 (case law)
*”**That is illustrated by this appeal. C was required by his Agreement to
take 6 steps each week and several other steps from time to time. That is
clearly more steps than the regulation requires of him to meet the test of
“actively seeking work”. And it is more steps than the Agreement asked him to record. On the facts, the secretary of state’s representative now
accepts that C took four steps in the week and that those four steps met
the test in section 7(1).”*
*”Further, there is nothing in the Act or the Regulations requiring that a
claimant must comply with everything in the Agreement. The reverse is the case. The agreement must comply with the law. To be valid, a jobseeker’s agreement must comply “with the prescribed regulations in force”: section 9(1) of the Act. The pattern of the legislation is that a jobseeker’s agreement must comply with the test of actively seeking work in sections 1(2)(c) and 7 of the Act and regulation 18 of the Regulations and not the other way round.”*
*The Outcome of this case – Success!*
Using this piece of case law the appeal was allowed, because the judge
determined John (the appellant) was actively seeking work as per section 7
of the Jobseeker’ Act 1995 and he took *significantly more than 2 steps to
in order to have the best prospects of seeking work *(Reg. 18 JSA Regs
*What does this outcome mean?*
This result confirms that Jobseeker Allowance claimants are unwittingly
agreeing to unreasonable, thus unlawful Jobseeker Agreements (soon to
become JSA Claimant Commitments) and, as a result 1000s are being
*However, this achievement is a hollow victory for the thousands of
Jobseekers expected to comply with their Jobseeker’s Agreements.*
This Tribunal ruling does not set a precedent for DWP to follow. As far as
DWP are concerned “it will be business as usual“. DWP’s position will
remain that if an individual claimant wishes to challenge their Jobseekers
Agreements on the basis of this Tribunal ruling they will have to jump
through all the various hoops.
Most will decide it is not worth their while and I know from my own experiences how difficult it can be. Further, the claimant must have the capacity to do so (many claimants are vulnerable) and they must also know that their Jobseekers Agreement is unlawful. The majority will not and as for the handful of claimants that do, DWP will cope with these people.
*What we appear to be dealing with here is, maladministration by the DWP on a grand scale affecting 1000s of individuals. *
*What can people do?*
I would strongly urge those who have been affected to get in touch
with their MP to raise this important issue.
And, you *must* appeal.
*Read the recent news reports about unfair sanctions….*
“70,000 job seekers’ benefits withdrawn unfairly, says think-tank”
*I believe it is significantly higher.*
*Rising rates of successful appeals have been seen as a sign that the
system for penalising those deemed to have broken job-seeker agreements is flawed.*
> Thanks, Mary. My own Jobseeker Agreement battles are chronicled on this blog (Jobseekers Agreement section) but need updating. I’m a bit behind because some of the things that have been happening need unravelling and making sense of – I start to think that every individual DWP worker has their own set of rules !
But suffice to say, I’ve been fighting my corner for 4 months now, still haven’t been sanctioned and am now on my second adviser – I’m wearing them down slowly.
Mary has provided more ammo here, some that I shall certainly being firing in the next battle. And I agree that everyone who can appeal, should – after all, what have you got to lose, and if nothing else you’ll help stretch the system a little nearer to breaking point.