DWP Select Committee Discussion on Sanctions
The three panelists were Matthew Oakley (Independent Reviewer of JSA Sanctions), Tony Wilson (Director of Policy & Research, learning & Work Institute) and Dr David Webster (Senior Research Fellow (University of Glasgow). Of all of them I found I agreed with David Webster the most as he remembered the way things were before it all got ridiculously punitive.
Tony Wilson reported that increasing sanctions had become part of the conditional approach. He said that it wasn't that the conditionality regime was failing but people are being actively targeted for sanctions. He said there'd been no government research to look at the impact of sanctions or no evaluation e.g. looking at economic, labour market or health impacts. He said it wouldn't even cost that much (a few hundred thousand pounds).
Matthew Oakley agreed disabled people shouldn't be sanctioned and that it was too dangerous for people with mental health problems i.e. threatening to take their money away from them.
Tony Wilson went further and said that recent developments have shown that even having conditionality isn't effective for sick and disable people, let alone sanctions.
Matthew Oakley said that there's no reason why we shouldn't give more to sick and disabled people who come along for interview and help them towards work which was an idea that was floated when ESA was first introduced in 2008. In other words, a carrot rather than a stick! He also mentioned that disabled claimants on JSA are more likely to be sanctioned than non-disabled claimants on JSA and 'that's hugely worrying'. He also mentioned about young and/or homeless people being sanctioned because they don't know the system.
(Heidi Allen who's on the Select Committee interjected here and said 'it's almost as if the system has been built assuming everyone's a rotter.' I can't help wondering where she was when IDS introduced all these changes.)
Tony Webster reported that there had been more sanctions applied in some years than there have been court fines. But he said the system 'doesn't observe the rules of natural justice, there isn't an impartial hearing and you don't hear both sides. You're sanctioned first and then you require the individual to submit evidence to prove. The burden of proof is the wrong way round, to prove they didn't cheat rather than for the accuser to prove that they did. The system hasn't always been like that.'
David Webster was concerned that the rate of sanctions under Universal Credit were very high. He said neither can you see the rate of sanctions for different groups e.g. unemployed, those on ESA, single parents etc. He said that the rate of sanctioning is much higher for UC claimants than JSA claimants, even when JSA sanctioning was at its peak. He said this may be to do with the fact that with JSA they would close the case rather than sanction but they can't do this with UC because people may be receiving another element e.g. housing, for children etc so they have to sanction them instead.
He went on to say that sanctioning should be as a last resort and only needed for a small minority of claimants but Job Centre staff aren't doing that. He said that under the old Supplementary Benefit rules there used to be Unemployment Review Officers who were specialists and would call people in for interview and find out about their issues. They were skilled people and it was their full time job to assess and advise people who were 'problematic'. They would visit people in their homes to see if they needed help but also to investigate fraud. He felt that discretion shouldn't be given to JobCentre staff at the first stage but via a review process later down the line, with increasingly specialised and experienced people.
Tony Wilson explained that JobCentre staff do have discretion. He said 'if somebody doesn't attend an interview you'd think there'd be some effort to understand...to have a conversation before you refer for sanction.'
David Webster stated that it was wrong 'to have turned something that was a perfectly acceptable social insurance system into a penal system'. He said it's not the kind of employment service 'which is going to deliver a heathy, improving labour force.' He went on to say that the regulations have conflated entitlement: that is whether you're entitled because you're really unemployed or whether you're entitled because you've complied with requirements about the activity after you've lodged your claim. He felt the distinction needed to be restored as well as a system that operates with the majority of claimants in mind and to treat abuse of the system as a separate issue which there have always been provisions for addressing but prior to the 1980s didn't dominate as they do now. Now claimants are being told it's a punitive system. He said some parts of the benefit system are highly controversial whereas some of the conditions for qualification e.g. not getting benefit for the first few weeks if you gave up your job voluntarily without good reason are not very controversial and were part of the Trade Union scheme conditions from the beginning. Others are highly controversial e.g. actively seeking work and keeping a diary and signing a claimant commitment were introduced in the late 1920s and abolished in 1930 and only brought back in 1989. He said it was highly controversial 'because it's the state saying they know better than you do about how you're going to get a job.' The requirement to attend an interview hasn't been in since the beginning, only in the last 20 years or so. The interview was brought over from Scandinavia to see if people could be helped, based on their skills, qualifications etc.
As I said though, it's well worth watching the second hour and of the people who had been experienced being sanctioned and how it had effected their lives.