The Committee is today publishing the Government’s response to its report on benefit sanctions. While the Government has finally agreed to evaluate one aspect of the impact of its reforms to conditionality and sanctions - the “only major welfare reform this decade to have never been evaluated” - it is looking only at their effectiveness in getting people into work. While this is clearly key, as it is the supposed objective of the policy, the Government is still not even considering the impact of sanctions on claimants’ financial and personal wellbeing. The widely reported detrimental impact of sanctions on claimants’ welfare formed the basis of the Committee’s report, when the Chair noted “We have heard stories of terrible and unnecessary hardship from people who’ve been sanctioned. They were left bewildered and driven to despair at becoming, often with their children, the victims of a sanctions regime that is at times so counter-productive it just seems pointlessly cruel”.
Negative impact of sanctions worked against people getting into work
Even confined to the question of impact on employment, the Committee found that the negative impact of sanctions actually worked against people getting into work, to the extent that the Government’s approach appeared “arbitrarily punitive”. No evidence the Committee received was “more compelling than that against the imposition of conditionality and sanctions on people with a disability or health condition. It does not work. Worse, it is harmful and counterproductive.”
The Committee’s inquiry highlighted the distressing stories of claimants like Jen Fidai, a young disabled woman forced to sofa-surf and sleep in the Uni library for a year, and ultimately give up her studies, after she was sanctioned - erroneously, as it turned out. It is these impacts on claimants’ lives, and the countless others which the Committee’s report and ongoing shocking news reports only scratch the surface of, which the Government is refusing to assess.
Forceful recommendation by Committee rejected
The Government rejected the recommendation that claimants already found to have limited capability for work should be exempt from sanctions, and also rejected the recommendation that claimants who are waiting for a Work Capability Assessment - the medical assessments for disability benefits PIP and ESa which the Committee has previously denounced as “riddled with errors and omissions”, and also subject to lengthy delays - should be exempt from sanctions if they had a “Fit Note” from a doctor saying they were unable to work. Government says it is looking into the possibility of a general policy that conditionality shouldn’t apply to those assessed as having limited work capability and people waiting for a WCA – although this decision would be in the hands of Work Coaches, ignoring the Committee’s wider concern that leaving too much to Work Coaches’ discretion in terms of sanctions more widely risked leading to inconsistent practice. The Government also rejected the recommendation to define “good reason” for failing to meet a requirement that led to a sanction - currently left to work coach discretion, leading to inconsistent practice - in legislation.
The Committee’s forceful recommendation - in the face of distressing evidence of the impact of sanctions on lone parents and their children - never to dock more than 20% of a lone parent’s benefit, was rejected, with the Government promising only to assess the employment impact of sanctions on this group as well. The Committee has reported elsewhere on the particular, deep difficulties lone parents are encountering under the major welfare reforms of the decade, including in its report on support for childcare costs under Universal Credit
Once again, the Government’s position on a key recommendation – that claimants is no longer subject to the requirement, the condition, that led to the sanction should also have the ongoing sanction lifted: the Government rejected this recommendation – is difficult to square with the supposed objective of the policy. If sanctions are about incentivising, for example, looking for work, it is difficult to see the point of continuing to punish someone for not making sufficient efforts to find work when they are no longer in fact required to find work.
Commenting on the response, Committee Chair Rt Hon Frank Field said:
“Our report laid bare the inhumanity of the Government’s sanctions regime, which it has pursued for years without ever stopping to check whether it works or what it is doing to the people it is meant to “support”.
In response, the Government has failed utterly to grasp the seriousness of the matter. It talks about reviews and “proof of concept”: it might want to take a look at the concept of not pushing disabled people and single parents—not to mention their children—into grinding poverty and hardship.”
Image: Roger Harris/DWP