Systematic problems in the way the government administers and imposes benefit sanctions, including disproportionate burdens on the most vulnerable, are revealed in a report commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions.
The report found the way in which the DWP communicated with claimants was legalistic, unclear and confusing. The most vulnerable claimants were often left at a loss as to why benefits were stopped and frequently not informed by the DWP about hardship payments to which they were entitled, it said.
It also revealed serious flaws in how sanctions were imposed, with Work Programme providers required to send participants for sanctions when they knew they had done nothing wrong, leaving “claimants … sent from pillar to post”.
> Personal experience – I was sanctioned by the Work Programme for not attending an appointment that didn’t exist – in actual fact the appointment was for the following week, which I did attend. Nevertheless, if I hadn’t appealed it (and won) the sanction would have stood.
The independent report was written for the DWP by Matthew Oakley, a respected welfare expert who is widely acknowledged as one of the leading thinkers on welfare on the centre right and as a result his criticisms, couched in careful language, are all the more damaging for a government that has consistently said the sanction regime is fair.
> This would be the very same Matthew Oakley who last year was pushing the idea of lower wages for regions like the North East. At that time he was talking as head of economics and social policy at the right wing “think tank” Policy Exchange. Just how independent a report he’s likely to produce is open to question.
His main recommendations, which have been accepted by ministers, are:
- All correspondence with claimants, including its style and content, should be reviewed
- Claimants must be given personalised information about why they have been referred
- Clear information must be given about the appeals process and access to hardship payments
- A guide to benefit sanctions must be easily accessible in hard copy and online
- Claimants who need particular help in understanding letters must be identified and spoken to
- People should get information through their “preferred channel“
- Procedures should be reviewed to ensure people have a clear understanding of their responsibilities
The DWP responded to the report by saying it would be updating the way it talked to benefit claimants, setting up a specialist team to look at all communications, including claimant letters, and working more closely with local authorities and advice centres to simplify the system.
Read Matthew Oakley’s full report on the government website here
Source – Benefits & Work, 23 July 2014
This article was written by Patrick Wintour, political editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 18th February 2014
Iain Duncan Smith’s Department for Work and Pensions is presiding over “a culture of fear” in which jobseekers are set unrealistic targets to find work – or risk their benefits being taken away, leading charities have told an official inquiry.
Hostel residents with limited IT facilities are being directed to apply for 50 jobs per week, while single parents are being told they must apply for full-time jobs to continue receiving jobseeker’s allowance, the charities say in evidence to an official inquiry. On Wednesday, new figures are expected to show a record number of claimants have had cash withheld.
The weight of evidence also supports controversial claims by Vincent Nichols, the leader of the Catholic church in England and Wales, in the week he is due to be made a cardinal by the pope. “Something is going seriously wrong when, in a country as affluent as ours, people are left in that destitute situation and depend solely on the handouts of the charity of food banks,” Nichols said on Tuesday.
The Department for Work and Pensions acknowledged mounting concerns about the increasing use of benefits removal – a process known as sanctioning – by appointing a former Treasury official, Matthew Oakley, to look at how the DWP is operating its tougher regime. His review, due to be published next month, has been criticised for its limited terms of reference, but nevertheless it has been swamped by criticism of how the unemployed and the disabled are being driven off benefits, often due to poor communication, bad administration or unexpected expectations being placed on the vulnerable.
In evidence to the Oakley inquiry, the charities Drugscope and Homeless Link warn that “the current sanctions regime creates a culture of fear of doing or saying the wrong thing. That may in fact lead to further benefit dependency and harming engagement with employment services, as vulnerable clients fear having benefits removed and never being reinstated.”
Crisis, the homeless charity asserts: “People who have been sanctioned are already on very limited incomes and face a significant further reduction, meaning they are left facing decisions between buying food, paying for heating and electricity and paying their rent. Debt is common and many face arrears, eviction and in the worst instances homelessness”.
In its evidence, Gingerbread, which lobbies for the rights of single parents, also warns: “While sanctions may be necessary for a small minority of claimants who deliberately evade their jobseeking responsibilities, the current high levels of sanctions across all [jobseeker’s allowance] claimants reveal a system in crisis and one that is systematically failing single parent jobseekers.” It says single parents are being told they must work full-time.
The National Association of Welfare Rights Advisers says “claimants are being sent on schemes with no discussion about whether they are appropriate to their needs and no opportunity for them to make representations about it . Adequate notification is also not routinely being given”.
It says some claimants have been told: “You need to spend 35 hours per week doing job searches and show evidence of 50 to 100 job searches or job applications per week.”
The evidence acts as a counterpoint to those who suggest welfare claimants are seeking a life on benefits. The government has been sufficiently embarrassed by the allegations that it has conceded it will look at a further inquiry into sanctions once the Oakley review has completed.
The number of sanctions in the year to 30 June 2013 was 860,000, the highest for any 12-month period since statistics began to be published in their present form. The figures due to be published on Wednesday cover the year to September 2013, and are likely to show a further increase in the number of claimants debarred from receiving benefits for as long as three years.
Disabled people are losing access to jobseeker’s allowance at the rate of 14,000 a month, the charities say. In total, the number of them having their benefits sanctioned each month has doubled since the regime was toughened in October 2012.
A spokesman for the DWP said: “The point of the review is to ensure the way we communicate with claimants is as clear and straightforward as possible. It is looking at where a sanction has been issued, the clarity of the information provided to the claimant about their sanction, and the options they then have including applying for hardship payments, and an explanation of the review and appeals process.”
Since 2012, benefit payments can be suspended for a minimum of four weeks and for up to three years where a claimant fails to take sufficient steps to search for work, to prepare themselves for the labour market or where they turn down an offer of employment or leave a job voluntarily.
A survey by Manchester CAB found 40% said had not received a letter from the jobcentre informing them of the benefit sanction, and almost a quarter did not know why they had been sanctioned.
Source – Welfare News Service 18 Feb 2014
Right wing “think tank” Policy Exchange (PE) – described by the Daily Telegraph as “the largest, but also the most influential think tank on the right” – wants pay to be cut for public sector workers in the North East (and Merseyside, and the South West), pointing to research claiming that taxpayer-funded jobs in the region pay as much as 3200 pounds more than their equivalents in the private sector.
(As usual I have problems with terms like “as much as 3200”, which probably means a few lucky people do, but the majority get nowhere near. But policies like this will always quote the highest figure earned by the minority, rather than the far lower one that is the lot of the majority. Just something to bear in mind…)
What the PE has in its sights is regional pay policies. Matthew Oakley, head of economics and social policy at PE : “Nationalised pay negotiation is not fit for purpose for the modern public sector. It is bad for the economy and bad for public services. While the unions should still have a strong role in the future, we should move to a system where local public sector employers can decide how to negotiate salaries with employees in order to reflect the realities of their labour market.”
Which I translate as something like – employers tell employees ” lots of unemployment out there – either you accept lower wages or we find someone who will.”
Incidentally, could this be the same Matthew Oakley who was recently described by The Void as ” Britain’s biggest scrounger” ? It certainly could.
Matthew Oakley has previously authored a paper on welfare reform which includes not only a demand for a greater use of sanctions for part workers, but astonishingly even pre-emptive benefit sanctions for people on fixed term contracts. Oakley believes that these workers should be stripped of any entitlement to benefits at all if Jobcentre staff decide that they weren’t doing enough to find work even before they lost their job.
So impressed was Iain Duncan Smith with this swivel-eyed nonsense that he gave Oakley a non-job on the Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) – the body whose job it is to scrutinise social security reforms.. This means he is now paid £256.80 a day of tax payer’s cash to provide so-called expert opinions on policies he helped create.
Prior to working at the Policy Exchange, Oakley was in another tax payer funded non-job at the Treasury where he worked on a white paper outlining proposals for Universal Credit. Now Iain Duncan Smith is to shovel yet more of our money into his grubby pockets by asking him to carry out what is laughingly called an ‘independent review’ of benefit sanctions.
Whilst over two million people are desperate for any job, Oakley now has three – and two of them at our expense.
Nice work if you can get it !
But as pointed out by Neil Foster, head of policy at the Northern TUC : “PE still fail to compare like with like since many of the jobs in the public sector simply don’t exist in the private sector and vice versa.
“They lost the argument on regional pay and I’d advise them to move on to other areas of research such as looking at the wealth at the top that has gone up during austerity, rather than arguing North East nurses, midwives, teachers and school cooks are overpaid.”
You might think that what all this proves is that the wages of private sector workers are being kept low by unscruprulous employers, and that rather than reducing the pay of the public sector, we should instead be raising the wages of the private sector.
Alternatively, you might think that if we should have lower regional wages, we should also have lower regional outgoings – lower power bills, food prices, transport, etc. But “pay more, get less” is the unofficial motto of organizations like PE and the neo-liberal forces they serve.
You might also like to bear in mind that a study for the GMB union shows 631,000 public sector jobs have been lost since the Coalition came to power in 2010,
and the union predicts that fresh cuts being eyed by Tory Chancellor George Osborne will take that figure over a million before the next election in May 2015.
GMB national officer Brian Strutton said: “These statistics show the devastating effect of this Government’s austerity cuts on total public sector employment. Some parts of the country that are most dependent on the public sector to support their local economies have been hardest hit.The tragedy is that the worse is yet to come.
“The Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast for net total public sector job losses during the lifetime of this Parliament means that the prospect for the next two years could be up to a further 400,000 job losses.”
Still, as we’ve often been told, the private sector will take up the slack and replace all those lost public sector jobs, albeit for lower wages.
It doesn’t seem to be happening. Isn’t that strange ?
You don’t think they might have been lying to us, do you ?