This week I have been asked to give evidence on behalf of Community Links to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee as they examine the role and impact of sanctions within the social security system.
There is simply not enough evidence about the best form of sanctions to encourage people into work. Given this, plus the hardship that we know sanctions can cause, I will be continuing Community Links’ call for a full evidence-based review of the sanction regime. Until such a review is completed, the rules around sanctioning jobseekers should be reversed to their pre-2012 levels. I’ll also be calling for the introduction of a first-warning system, to prevent jobseekers having their benefits stopped the first time they make a mistake – and to ensure they understand the conditions of their benefit claim.
Sanctions (where benefits are reduced or stopped for a period of time) can be imposed on people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance (JSA) or Employment Support Allowance (ESA). They are applied in a number of circumstances including failure to attend meetings, not putting sufficient effort into looking for work, turning down a job, or leaving a job voluntarily.
Community Links is exceptionally well placed to understand sanctions, from the perspective of both their application and their consequences. Although our Work Programme advisors do not have the power to issue them directly, they may initiate a process that could lead to sanctions by “raising doubts” about clients who are not following the conditions of their JSA claim. Additionally through our advice services we often support clients who have been sanctioned. We have detailed our policy on sanctions in a policy briefing published last year, and have submitted written evidence to the current review.
There has been a considerable increase in the application of sanctions – with referrals increasing by 30% since the introduction of a new, more stringent, system in late 2012. Yet over half of all reconsideration requests and appeals against JSA sanctions are successful.
Our submission to the Work and Pensions Select Committee’s current inquiry explores a fundamental question of approach – are sanctions intended to be a punishment for transgression or ‘nudge’ to improve behaviour? We believe that rather than focusing on compliance, the explicit and overriding rationale for sanctions should be about supporting people towards work: encouraging behaviours that move people further towards sustainable employment and discouraging negative behaviours which detract from this goal. We are concerned that there is no clearly stated rationale for the current sanctions regime. Alongside the lack of clarity, evaluation of outcome is impossible whilst no robust, independent examination of their efficacy has been conducted. We believe the current system of sanctions should be rolled back to the previous, less punitive system whilst such an evaluation is undertaken.
Overall we believe that the existence of sanctions can act as a useful ‘nudge’ for some people, when this is part of a strong and personalised supportive relationship with advisors. But sanctions must be applied as a last resort – when all other options have been exhausted. The harsh conditionality of a stricter sanctions regime has caused unnecessary hardship – sometimes preventing people from finding a job. An inflexible system which sanctions people unfairly, often without reason, cannot be delivered within a supportive relationship.
Our recent examinations of the welfare system have recommended a change in approach. In “Secure and Ready” we suggest a “presumption of willingness“, which sees conditionality and sanctions imposed only when a person has identified themselves unwilling to engage. A second paper, “Deep Value Assessment” sets out how an early assessment of job seekers – based on greater reciprocity than the current system – could improve outcomes. By taking the time to understand the detail of people’s situations, this could help more jobseekers into work, and reduce the number of unnecessary sanctions by enabling jobseekers and coaches to work better together. Jobseekers understand their own needs and abilities better than anyone. They should have much more opportunity to contribute to their own assessment; shape their own action plan and identify the support they need. A more participatory assessment would also encourage employment support to include a consideration of jobseekers’ strengths, instead of just addressing their needs.
Focusing on understanding what the customer can do – and wants to do – would encourage them to build on their strengths, and ensure many more were ready to move into sustainable employment.
You can view the whole evidence session on the Parliament Live TV broadcast: