The Committee is publishing correspondence with Alok Sharma MP, Minister of State for Employment ahead of the Committee’s Benefit Sanctions report.
The Committee was deeply concerned, during the course of its inquiry, at the paucity of evidence about either the effectiveness of sanctions or their impact on claimants, particularly vulnerable ones, and wrote to DWP with a series of follow up queries.
In the course of the inquiry, which included an online consultation about people’s experiences of benefit sanctions that got over 500 responses, the Committee heard stories of extreme hardship and distress, only in some cases caused by protracted errors and failures of administration.
Key points from correspondence
The Committee asked how the Department expects to evaluate the policy of increased sanction lengths. The Minister did not respond specifically and confirmed that “whilst the date of failure is available (though not published), we still do not hold the start and end dates for a sanction and thus we do not hold the length of the sanction either”. This means that although under current regulations a sanction may be applied, ie your Universal Credit standard allowance reduced by up to 100%, for up to three years, the Department doesn’t know how long each sanction actually lasts. It is difficult to see how they can therefore assess the effect of sanction length.
The Minister’s response says that because less than 1% of claimants in the ESA Support Group - who do not have mandatory conditionality - move off the benefit and into work, it would be a “disservice” to exempt disabled people from sanctions. This group of people, however, have been assessed as unable to work, or even to look for work. The very low rate of movement into work is therefore hardly counter-intuitive, and the argument difficult to comprehend.
The Department said in oral evidence that 70% and 60% of claimants said sanctions made them more likely to look for work. The Committee asked the Department to confirm how far this research was based on the sanctions regime introduced by the Welfare Reform Act 2012. The Minister confirmed that “the research relates predominantly to the old regime”.
The Committee asked what further evaluation has been done of the regime introduced by the 2012 Act, in particular regarding the impact and effectiveness of more severe sanctions. The Minister said “The Department is building its understanding” and will “attempt to isolate the impact of sanctions on transitions into work and of earnings when in work”. He confirmed, however, that “this will not provide evidence of the effectiveness of the 2012 Act, compared to the previous system”, though “it may provide insight into the effectiveness of the current sanctions system in supporting conditionality”.
The Committee asked how frequently claimants meet their named Work Coach. The Minister said that a study had begun to find out and the Department would write to the Committee again 6 months.
The Committee asked how much the department will save by making hardship payments repayable. The Minister did not know, but said “officials are currently considering the feasibility of providing this information”.
The Committee asked for updated data on hardship payments. The Minister could not provide this information, but said the Department “will look to update the previous ad hoc release”.
The Committee asked what analysis the department had done to understand the higher rate of sanctioning observed under Universal Credit compared to the legacy system. The Minister said that “The Department is yet to undertake robust analysis into the extent of the effects on sanctions rates resulting from the differences in policy between UC and legacy benefits”.
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