The Work and Pensions Committee launches an inquiry into benefit sanctions: how they operate, recent developments, and what the evidence is that they work - either to deter non-compliant behaviour or to help achieve the policy objectives of getting people off benefits and into work.
Absurdly trivial breaches of benefit conditions
Sanctions, which take the form of docking a portion of benefit payments for a set period of time, can be imposed for breaching benefit conditions like attending a work placement, or for being minutes late for a Job Centre appointment.
Media reports of the Committee's last inquiry into benefit sanctions in 2015 Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review, described "copious evidence of claimants being docked hundreds of pounds and pitched into financial crisis for often absurdly trivial breaches of benefit conditions, or for administrative errors beyond their control."
There have also been serial reports in the media of extreme instances of the use and effects of sanctions – people hospitalised for life threatening conditions or premature labour being sanctioned for weeks or months for consequently missing a benefits appointment, or being unable to afford the transport to a distant job placement and being sanctioned for failing to attend it - and speculation over the degree of discretion Job Centre Plus staff have in these instances.
Recent policy developments
The inquiry will look at recent sanctions policy developments, like the "yellow card" system which gives claimants 14 days to challenge a decision to impose a sanction before it is put into effect. The system was announced in late 2015 although there is still no date for introducing it.
The inquiry will also consider the evidence base for the impact of sanctions, both that emerging from newly published statistics, and the robustness of the evidence base for the current use of sanctions as a means of achieving policy objectives. Previously published in the Department's quarterly statistical summaries, the Benefit Sanctions Statistics will now be a separate quarterly publication.
In 2016 the NAO released a report on the subject; and in February 2017 the Public Accounts Committee published its report "Benefit sanctions". The Government accepted the recommendations of that PAC report and described progress on implementation in the January 2018 Treasury Minutes Progress Report:
- The Government initially agreed to undertake a trial of warnings for a first sanctionable offence. This recommendation has not been implemented.
- The Government agreed to monitor variation in sanction referrals and to assess the reasons for such variation. The Department’s research on variation is due to be completed in March.
- The Government agreed to monitor the use and take-up of protections for vulnerable groups. The Department is “still considering the best way to qualitatively assess the use and effectiveness of protections for vulnerable claimants”.
- The Government agreed to improve data systems, including on linking information e.g. earnings and sanctions
- The Government initially agreed to work with the rest of Government to estimate the impacts of sanctions on claimants and their wider costs to government. This recommendation has not been implemented.
Send us your views
The Committee invites evidence on any or all of the following questions, from benefit recipients with experience of the system, or experts in the field:
- To what extent is the current sanctions regime achieving its policy objectives?
- Is the current evidence base adequate and if not, what further information, data and research are required?
- What improvements to sanctions policy could be made to achieve its objectives better?
- Could a challenge period and/or a system of warnings for a first sanctionable offence be beneficial? If so, how should they be implemented?
- Are levels of discretion afforded to jobcentre staff appropriate?
- Are adequate protections in place for vulnerable claimants?
- What effects does sanctions policy have on other aspects of the benefits system and public services more widely? Are consequential policy changes required?
- To what extent have the recommendations of the Oakley review of Jobseekers’ Allowance sanctions improved the sanctions regime? Are there recommendations that have not been implemented that should be?
The deadline for written submissions is 25 May 2018.
Sanctions need to be proportional and fair
Rt Hon Frank Field MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"Sanctions are an important part of any benefits system but they need to be applied proportionately and fairly and to account for individual circumstances.
I've seen deeply troubling cases in my constituency that suggest these objectives are not always being achieved. We will be reviewing the evidence to see if sanctions policy is working properly and if not, we will recommend improvements."